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U.S. takes down a Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start with an update on the suspected Chinese spy balloon that the U.S. shot down over the Atlantic Ocean a little after 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time. The story has captivated the nation for what may be the first time the public watched a geopolitical scandal unfold in real time. Here to help explain it to us is NPR's Jenna McLaughlin. Jenna, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, how did they take it down?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. So this afternoon, a senior defense official told us that it was an F-22 fighter jet that used an air-to-air missile around 58,000 feet. Their initial assessment is that there was no collateral damage, and now the debris are scattered across about 7 nautical miles.

MARTIN: So this balloon made a cross-country trip over the U.S. seeing all the sights. Why shoot it down now?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. So the Pentagon has told reporters they were aware of this Chinese spy balloon before it crossed into U.S. airspace about a week ago. They've been tracking it closely ever since as it passed over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana and gradually flew southeastward. Biden said today that he commanded the Pentagon to shoot it down. He gave that permission on Wednesday, but he asked to wait until it was safe, as in not over land where debris might fall on civilians.

The other reason is that they say they believe that China's really not getting that much sensitive intelligence through this balloon, at least not anything vastly more interesting than what they're already getting with their satellites in low orbit. By Saturday afternoon, the balloon was headed for the coastal Carolinas. And the Federal Aviation Administration, who are in charge of flight control and safety, shut down the airspace in that region. Most people pretty quickly figured that meant the U.S. military was going to shoot the balloon down over the water. And the Pentagon quickly confirmed that that was the case.

MARTIN: OK. But they let a Chinese spy balloon fly all the way across the U.S. All right. So what was it doing, exactly? What was it capable of?

MCLAUGHLIN: Exactly. So the Chinese government tried to play it off as a wayward weather balloon. But DOD has been really quick to swat that down. In briefings as early as Friday, Pentagon spokesman and Brigadier General Pat Ryder said that the U.S. government is very confident that it's a spy balloon that's owned and operated by the People's Republic of China, and China can pilot it and did fly it over sensitive military sites. Here's how he described key parts of the balloon on Friday and concerns about when to shoot it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT RYDER: It is a surveillance balloon, right? So there is a surveillance capability underneath this large balloon, right? So look at a blimp. A blimp has a basket, right? So there's a basket underneath it, in layman's terms. So, again, large enough to be concerning if there were a debris field.

MCLAUGHLIN: He also said this isn't the first time that this has happened. The Pentagon has seen several others outside and inside U.S. airspace, including before the Biden administration. So China's done this before.

MARTIN: But if they've done this before, why has it been such a public saga this week? What's different this time?

MCLAUGHLIN: So for one, I think that in the digital age, it was so easy for people to spot the balloon and share updates in real time on social media. People have also been using open-source flight trackers, and they really quickly spotted several military jets flying around Myrtle Beach around the same time that the FAA issued the ground stop. I also think that the other reason this time is different is because there's a lot of tension between China and the U.S. right now. China might not necessarily get a lot of intelligence from this mission, but it sends a clear message, particularly ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's planned diplomatic travel to China, which ultimately got postponed as a result of this snafu.

MARTIN: So the balloon's been shot down. What now?

MCLAUGHLIN: Now the Pentagon's got to clean up. They've got a naval recovery mission on their hands. Officials at the Pentagon told reporters this afternoon that they're not sure how long it will take, but there are several Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the area to take care of it. The debris is scattered across seven nautical miles in water that gets up to about 47 feet deep. But the U.S. military officials that we spoke with were actually pretty optimistic because now they can collect the Chinese technology and study it. So what was designed to give China a huge surveillance boost might actually help the U.S. learn about what a U.S. military official described as a fleet of Chinese surveillance balloons that have been spotted across five different continents.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Jenna McLaughlin. Jenna, thank you.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.