After shooting down a Chinese surveillance balloon in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, the Pentagon said it has launched a mission to recover all the equipment from the debris.
At the direction of President Joe Biden, the US military at 2.39 pm EST shot down the Chinese surveillance balloon in the Atlantic Ocean, some six miles away from the US shores in South Carolina, with no damage to the life and properties of Americans, a senior defence official told reporters.
Fighter aircraft from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia inspired a single missile into the balloon causing it to crash into the ocean within the US territorial airspace, said the official, adding that as of now there are no indications that any people including US military personnel, civilian aircraft or maritime vessels were harmed in any way.
“I told them to shoot it down,” Biden told reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland.
“On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as possible. They decided -- without doing damage to anyone on the ground -- the best time to do that was as it got over water, outside within the 12-mile limit,” Biden said.
“This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, fighter aircraft assigned to US Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in US airspace. The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above US territorial waters,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
This action was taken in coordination, and with the full support, of the Canadian government.
The Pentagon official told reporters soon thereafter that they took immediate steps to protect against the balloon's collection of sensitive information mitigating its intelligence value to China.
By shooting down the balloon it addressed the surveillance threat posed to military installations and further neutralise any intelligence value it could have produced, preventing it from returning to China.
“In addition, shooting the balloon down could enable the US to recover sensitive PRC equipment. While we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC surveillance balloon collection of sensitive information of the surveillance balloons overflight of US territory, which was of intelligence value to us,” the official said without divulging much of the information.
“I can't go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinise the balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable. The Chinese officials have themselves acknowledged the high-altitude surveillance balloon which has been useful to the People’s Republic of China,” said the official.
Now that the balloon has been shot down, focus has shifted to the recovery mission, which is already underway.
Multiple vessels are on the spot along with the divers, to go down if needed. The US has also deployed unmanned vessels that can go down to get the structure and lift it back up on the recovery ship, said the official.
FBI officials are also on board as well, other counterintelligence authorities to be categorising and assessing the platform itself.
According to the second senior defence official, the Pentagon has been tracking this high altitude balloon for some time. It entered Alaska on January 28. It then entered into Canadian airspace on January 30 and re-entered US airspace over Northern Idaho on January 31.
“With confidence the high-altitude balloon was a PRC surveillance balloon. We assessed that it did not pose a threat at any time to civilian air traffic and because of the altitude of the balloons. We also assess it did not pose military or kinetic threat to US people or property on the ground, although we were constantly updating both of those assessments and prepared to take it out if that threat profile changed,” said the official.
“We're also looking at the intel value of the balloon throughout. We are going to learn more as we pick up the debris that was not likely to provide significant added value over and above other PRC intel capabilities such as satellites in low Earth orbit, for example,” said the official.
But nevertheless, this balloon was clearly crossing over sensitive sites, including sensitive military sites. As such, the Pentagon took additional precautions to make sure that whatever added intelligence value was minimised.
Through constant monitoring and surveillance, the US has learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. “I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris we will learn even more,” said the official.