The Pentagon stated that a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon Saturday off the coast of South Carolina in response to Beijing's "unacceptable violation" of American sovereignty.
The craft flew over North America for several days, escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, before it was targeted with a missile shot from an F-22 aircraft, according to Pentagon officials, and fell into relatively shallow water measuring only 47 feet (14 meters) in depth.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin referred to the operation as a "calculated and legal response" to China's "unacceptable violation of our sovereignty."
A senior defence official told reporters that Saturday afternoon was the first opportunity for the military to engage the balloon "in a manner that would not pose a threat to the safety of Americans" while allowing officials to remove debris from U.S. territorial seas.
In a video captured by an eyewitness and shared on social media, the balloon disintegrates into a white cloud before plunging vertically into the ocean below.
Haley Walsh tweeted that she "heard and felt the explosion" in the South Carolina resort town of Myrtle Beach.
President Joe Biden, who earlier Saturday had promised to "take care" of the balloon, sent his congratulations to the involved jet pilots.
"They successfully removed it. And I'd like to commend our aviators for their efforts," Biden told reporters in Maryland.
Thursday, American officials announced that they were tracking a giant Chinese "surveillance balloon" in American airspace.
This prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a rare trip to Beijing aimed at containing increasing US-China tensions on Friday.
After initial reluctance, Beijing accepted possession of the "airship" but claimed it was an off-course weather balloon.
"The airship originates in China. It is a civilian blimp used mainly for meteorological research, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement released Friday.
"The Chinese side regrets the unintentional entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure," it added, using the legal word for an event beyond the control of humans.
The balloon entered U.S. airspace above Alaska on January 28, according to Pentagon officials speaking to the media on Saturday. It subsequently drifted into Canada and then returned to U.S. airspace days later.
It was not the first time such an aircraft had flown over U.S. territory in recent history, according to a senior defence official, but this was the longest time one had spent in the country — three balloons were spotted during Donald Trump's presidency; one balloon was spotted during the Biden administration.
Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he had ordered the aircraft to be shot down "immediately."
"They determined, without harming anyone on the ground, that the best time to do that was when it was over water," Biden explained.
According to the senior defence official, the military assessed that the blimp did not pose a significant threat to the United States during its mission, and "the surveillance balloon's overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us," he added without further elaboration.
A senior military officer said Saturday that teams were already attempting to recover the balloon's remains.
The balloon had sailed over portions of the northwestern United States, notably Montana, home to critical airbases and underground silos housing strategic nuclear missiles.
We are convinced they were attempting to monitor critical military locations, said a senior defence official.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada also lauded the operation, writing, "Canada strongly supports this action — we will continue to work together... for our security and defence."
Biden, who has essentially kept and at times increased Trump's strict policies on China, was portrayed as weak by Republican lawmakers who jumped on the balloon episode swiftly.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a prominent Democrat, tweeted on Saturday that the U.S. can now "collect the equipment and analyze the technology used by the CCP" (Chinese Communist Party).
The Federal Aviation Administration had reopened the airspace off the coast of the Carolinas by late Saturday afternoon following the temporary closure of three southeastern airports for a "national security effort."
On Saturday morning, after the balloon was sighted over North and South Carolina, the sheriff of York County, South Carolina, cautioned citizens against taking matters into their own hands.
"It is flying at the height of over 60,000 feet. Please do not attempt to shoot it! "YOUR RIFLE BULLETS WILL NOT REACH IT," tweeted Sheriff Kevin Tolson.
Friday, the Pentagon said another suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted over Latin America without providing further specifics.
In recent years, a senior defence official stated that Chinese balloons had been detected over five continents, including East Asia, South Asia, and Europe.