On Saturday afternoon, US jets intercepted the Chinese surveillance balloon as it was leaving the continental US. Live footage of the event shows contrails of aircraft approaching the balloon, followed by a puff of smoke that may indicate the explosion of some ordnance near the balloon’s envelope—a reporter is heard saying “they just shot it” in the video embedded below. The envelope clearly loses structural integrity shortly afterwards as it plunges towards the ocean. Reportedly, the events took place near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
— Brad Panovich (@wxbrad) February 4, 2023
Shortly afterwards, the US Department of Defense (DOD) released a statement attributed to its Secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, that confirmed the interception was performed by US fighter jets on the order of President Biden. The DOD identifies the hardware as a “high altitude surveillance balloon,” and says that the President authorized shooting it down as early as Wednesday. The military, however, determined that this could not be done without posing a risk to US citizens, either due to debris from the balloon itself, or from the ordnance used to destroy it.
As a result, the military waited until the balloon was far enough offshore to no longer pose a risk to land, but close enough that it would fall within US territorial waters, ensuring that the country would be the first to recover any hardware that survived the plunge into the sea. Secretary Austin also thanked Canada for its assistance in tracking and intercepting the balloon through the countries’ cooperative North American defense organization, NORAD.
It’s unclear how much intelligence value there will be in any hardware that survives the fall to the ocean from that altitude. Of course, it was also unclear whether there was any intelligence value in the balloon’s flight across the US in the first place.