US fighter jets on Saturday, Feb. 4, shot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, a week after it entered US airspace, the Pentagon confirmed. The balloon had by then covered the distances from the remote Aleutian Islands via Canada and North America to the Carolinas. Recovery efforts began shortly after the balloon was downed, in an effort to confirm whether it was a spy balloon as the US military claimed or a weather research project, as Beijing maintained. While it was still aloft, the authorities halted air traffic over the Carolinas’ coast and stopped landings and takeoffs at three airports in the vicinity of the shooting.
China expressed its “strong dissatisfaction and protest” for the decision to down the balloon, accusing the US of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice.”
DEBKAfile reported on Friday:
The US Pentagon confirmed on Thursday, Feb. 2, that a suspected Chinese high-altitude spy balloon had two days earlier passed over sensitive sites in northern American Billings, Montana. President Joe Biden, it was said, had decided against shooting it down lest fragments dropped on inhabited areas. Canada later confirmed the sighting.
Washington responded with security measures, unfazed by the scorn Chinese publications poured on the report the next day, Friday. The official Global Times commented: “If balloons from other countries could really enter continental US smoothly, or even enter the sky over certain states, it only proves that the US’s air defense system is completely a decoration and cannot be trusted,” the Chinese paper editorialized.
And China Daily, taunted: “To spy on the US with a balloon, one must both fall far behind to use a 1940s technology and be advanced enough to control its flight cross the ocean. Those fabricating the lie are only exposing their ignorance.”
Ignorant or not, the US Pentagon took the sudden appearance of a suspected Chinese balloon seriously enough for Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austrin to call an urgent conference with the Chairman of the Armed Services, Gen. Mark Milley, and head of NORTHCOM, Gen. Gen Glen Vanherck.
The generals advised the commander in chief, President Biden, against shooting the spy balloon down. Instead, they put in place measures to prevent it from gathering confidential information. Montana houses nuclear missile bases.
On Thursday, the president parried reporters’ questions about the incident. While playing down the event, the US military lofted AWACS spy planes escorted by Raptor F-22 fighters from the Nellis Air Force base, to keep a close watch on the Chinese balloon. Although it was not the first such Chinese trespasser, this balloon is described by US security officials as showing no signs of exiting American airspace and frequently changes altitudes, fluctuating between 4 and 36 miles.
And on Thursday, American forces in Taiwan and the Philippines were boosted.