VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A weeklong saga that had much of the country watching the skies for the small white speck — that federal officials believe was a Chinese spy balloon — ended with a “bang” delivered by a fighter jet stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.
The F-22 from Langley’s 1st Fighter Wing fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon. The large white orb — with what looked like a satellite-esque structure on the bottom — was destroyed about six miles off the South Carolina coast Saturday afternoon, according to the Department of Defense.
No one was injured in the operation and the balloon never posed a military or physical threat, defense officials said. Navy and Coast Guard vessels are engaged in a recovery effort, which is expected to be “fairly easy” because the water where the balloon was shot down was only about 47 feet deep, according to the DOD.
Three Hampton Roads-based ships are involved: the USS Oscar Austin and USS Philippine Sea from Norfolk, and the USS Carter Hall from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach.
“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the (People’s Republic of China’s) unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said in a news release Saturday.
Chinese officials over the last week described it as a “weather balloon” that entered U.S. airspace by accident, but military officials said that it changed course during its time over the center of the country undermines that claim, Reuters reported.
During the balloon’s journey, the U.S. took steps to thwart any surveillance capability to mitigate its value to the Chinese, and analysts will examine the balloon’s equipment. While this is the most high-profile instance, defense officials said Saturday a Chinese balloon “briefly transited the continental United States” at least three other times during the previous White House administration.
Officials detected the balloon Jan. 28, when it entered U.S. airspace over the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska coast. It then passed over Canada and reentered U.S. airspace over Idaho on Tuesday, the Defense Department said. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden gave the order to shoot down the balloon once there was no risk to people on the ground.
The balloon, which CNN reported was carrying a payload the size of three Coach buses, passed over Montana at about 60,000 feet Wednesday. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls is one of the country’s three nuclear missile silos, leading defense leaders to fear it was gathering information about one of the nation’s most sensitive sites, according to the Associated Press.
The balloon saga comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, and prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel an important trip to Beijing.
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