When a Chinese spy balloon was first spotted by US officials flying high over the picturesque riverside city of Billings, Montana, earlier this week, President Joe Biden wanted to take immediate action.
But the Pentagon told him to sit tight. The payload was the size of three buses and would pose too much risk to anyone on the ground.
“On Wednesday when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as possible without doing damage to anyone on the ground,” Mr Biden revealed on Saturday night.
“They said to me, let’s wait for the safest place to do it,” he said, referring to the Department of Defence.
They could only watch as it drifted over the Malmstrom Air Force base, home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields. A day later, on Thursday, the sighting was made public – and a political firestorm erupted.
Mr Biden faced a barrage of calls to shoot down the balloon and accusations that he was letting China take advantage of the US.
While Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, cancelled an official trip to China, the balloon kept going.
It floated over close to a dozen nuclear facilities, a number of missile stores and five or six large military bases. It sailed right above the cities of St Louis, Kansas City and Nashville. And still Mr Biden said nothing publicly.
Finally, when asked on Saturday afternoon what he was going to do, the president broke his silence, saying simply: “We’re gonna take care of it.”
A few hours later, after days of delay, Mr Biden finally got his way. As the balloon approached the coastline, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all operations be suspended at three South Carolina airports – Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston – due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort”.
The balloon’s time was up. As soon as it moved over the ocean, F22 jets were scrambled from Langley air base.
In the end it only took one AIM-9X missile to tear the canopy to shreds.
The payload was left intact, and plunged into the ocean off Myrtle Beach in just 47ft of water, indicating how precise the operation had been. Recovery teams are understood to have been waiting in the water in anticipation of the strike.
Mr Biden, who was on Air Force one as the operation took place, arrived at Camp David on Saturday night as recovery teams travelled off the Carolina coastline to recover the debris, expected to be packed with instruments and sensors.
It is understood that the balloon was launched from China and made its way across the Pacific Ocean, over the Aleutian islands, down though Canada and into the US high above Montana.
Speaking before the balloon was downed, Beijing on Saturday tried to downplay the device’s significance.
It said it “would not accept any groundless conjecture or hype”, accused “some politicians and media in the US” of using the incident “to attack and smear China” and urged Washington to remain “cool-headed”.
It insisted the balloon was just an errant civilian “airship” used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds and has only limited “self-steering” capabilities.
The truth of that will be tested when the US is able to examine whatever is left of the balloon. It will be taken to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, officials said.
The question now is, what will they find? There may be water damage and possible breakup from the impact. If the data was all being streamed back to China, it could well have been deleted.
The strike comes as a second craft was spotted over South America, above Colombia and Venezuela, on Saturday.
While the Pentagon did not confirm its exact location, spokesman Pat Ryder said: “We are seeing reports of a balloon transiting Latin America. We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon.”
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