US Navy divers are working to recover the wreckage of the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina.
The high-altitude balloon – thought to be the size of three buses – was shot out of the sky by a Sidewinder air-to-air missile fired from an F-22 jet fighter. It came down about six nautical miles off the US coast at 14:39 EST (19:39 GMT) on Saturday.
US TV networks broadcast the moment the missile struck, with the giant white object falling to the sea after a small explosion.
The debris landed in 47ft (14m) of water shallower than they had expected – and is spread over seven miles (11km).
Explaining the decision to shoot the balloon down, a US defence official said in a statement, that “while we took all necessary steps to protect against the PRC [China] surveillance balloon’s collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon’s overflight of US territory was of intelligence value to us.”
China’s foreign ministry expressed “strong dissatisfaction and protest against the US’s use of force to attack civilian unmanned aircraft”.
In a written statement, the Chinese government said it would “resolutely safeguard” the rights and interests of the company operating the balloon and that it reserved the right to “make further responses if necessary”.
The US believes the balloon was monitoring sensitive military sites and top military officers believe the search for debris would happen relatively quickly so that experts could begin analysing its equipment.
The ballon incidence set off a diplomatic crisis, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken immediately calling off this weekend’s trip to China over the “irresponsible act”.
The Chinese authorities denied it was used for spying and insisted it was a weather ship blown astray.
Admiral Mike Mullen, former chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday, February 5 he thought the Chinese military might have launched the balloon intentionally to disrupt Mr Blinken’s trip to China. His visit would have been the first high level US-China meeting there in years.
Mullen rejected China’s suggestion it might have blown off course, saying it was manoeuvrable because “it has propellers on it”.
“This was not an accident. This was deliberate. It was intelligence,” he added.
Biden first approved the plan to bring down the balloon on Wednesday, but decided to wait until the object was over water so as not to put people on the ground at risk.
Relations between China and the US have been exacerbated by the incident, with the Pentagon calling it an “unacceptable violation” of its sovereignty.
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