This story has been updated with President Biden's remarks, a witness account, and other new information.
A US Air Force fighter jet on Saturday shot down a balloon launched by China that was suspected of spying as it floated over several states and inflamed tension between the nations. The balloon came down in the Atlantic Ocean, off the South Carolina coast, the AP reports. Recovery efforts began immediately. President Biden afterward praised the US forces involved. "I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible," he said. Military leaders decided the operation would pose the least danger to people on the ground if the balloon was shot down "when it got over water within our 12-mile limit," Biden said, per the New York Times.
F-22 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia were deployed, per CNN, and fired a single AIM-9X missile at 2:39pm ET when the balloon was about 6 nautical miles from Myrtle Beach. The FAA had imposed ground stops and closed airspace over parts of the Carolinas earlier in the afternoon, saying the move was to "support the Department of Defense in a national security effort," per the Washington Post. The Coast Guard also had told sea traffic to leave the area, anticipating debris would be scattered over a large area. The military tried to time the operation so that crews could reach the debris, projected to fall in US territorial waters, before it sinks.
Calling the operation "a lawful action" in a statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said China was using the balloon "to surveil strategic sites." The balloon, which was floating at an altitude of 60,000 feet, had been spotted Saturday over Charlotte and South Carolina's Greenville County. Jeffrey Billie of Pawleys Island, South Carolina, saw the balloon come down, per the Times. "It was two fighter jets dancing with this thing going around and around it," he said. Next, a third jet appeared and fired the missile as the balloon moved over the water. "Then, of course, the round big white ball that we saw—all of a sudden it looked like a shriveled Kleenex," he said. Another Chinese balloon is over Latin America, Pentagon officials said. (Read more US-China relations stories.)