Timeline: The journey of a Chinese spy balloon across the United States
Here’s a daily timeline of events leading up to the dramatic shooting off the east coast on Saturday. The following is based on interviews with three senior US officials, all of whom asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Saturday January 28:
The balloon is first detected over US airspace over Alaska, north of the Aleutian Islands. The Army’s North American Aerospace Defense Command is closely monitoring the balloon, assessing that it poses no threat or intelligence risk.
Monday January 30:
NORAD tracks the balloon as it moves through Canadian airspace. Officials determine that it is used for espionage, as it carries surveillance equipment, including a collection capsule and solar panels located on the metal structure suspended under the balloon. Based on its small motors and propellers, officials also believe it can be actively maneuvered to hover over specific locations.
The balloon is part of a Chinese fleet developed for espionage, which in recent years has been spotted over countries on five continents, including Asia and Europe. Balloons have been seen over the United States three times during the Trump administration, and once before during the early Biden administration. What makes this new encounter different is the long duration on the continent.
Tuesday, January 31:
The balloon re-enters US airspace over northern Idaho. The Department of Defense alerts President Joe Biden, who asks for military options to take him down.
The Pentagon begins work to prevent the balloon from collecting sensitive information from ground sites. It was “simple,” said a senior administration official, “because we could follow the exact trajectory of the ball and ensure that no unencrypted sensitive activity or communication was taking place nearby.”
Wednesday February 1:
Pentagon officials are alarmed as the balloon heads for Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three sites that operate and maintain the country’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin summons military and civilian leaders, including U.S. Northern Command Chief General General Glen VanHerck and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley , to discuss the situation.
All flights at Billings Logan International Airport are grounded for about two hours while authorities consider what to do. The military scrambles the F-22 fighter jets in case a decision is made to shoot it down.
Ultimately, Milley and VanHerck recommend against aiming the balloon over land due to the risk to civilians from falling debris. Defense officials estimate debris from the balloon, which is the size of three buses, could fall within a radius of at least seven miles.
The President directs the Pentagon to come up with options to shoot down the balloon as soon as it is safe to do so over US territorial waters, and in a manner that allows them to recover the payload. He also directs the military and intelligence community to monitor the balloon to better understand its capabilities. NASA begins to analyze and assess the possible debris field, based on the path of the balloon, the weather and the estimated payload of the airship.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman meet with Chinese Embassy officials.
Thursday, February 2:
The Pentagon issues a statement that a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon has entered US airspace. Lawmakers call for briefings and start criticizing Biden for not shooting him. Reports of a second balloon seen flying over Central and South America.
The military continues to work on options to safely drop the ball. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan regularly briefs the President.
Blinken decides to postpone his planned trip to China, and senior administration officials agree.
Friday February 3
China’s Foreign Ministry issues a statement acknowledging that the balloon is Chinese, but claims it is a civilian airship used to collect weather data. China says it accidentally entered US airspace and expresses regret. But US officials are pushing back, saying the balloon is clearly being used for surveillance purposes and the breach is a clear violation of US sovereignty.
Biden is briefed Friday evening on the plan to shoot down the balloon on Saturday over Wilmington, North Carolina, including which aircraft will be used to shoot it down and which warships to retrieve it, as well as initial analysis of the knowledge of his abilities. . Biden endorses the plan.
Throughout the night, the National Security Council and the Pentagon work to ensure that all measures are in place for the plan to succeed.
Saturday February 4:
In the morning, Biden speaks several times with Austin and Sullivan about the mission. Later, Biden promises “we’ll take care of it” when asked about the ball during a stopover in Syracuse, New York. He gives reporters a thumbs up when asked if the military will shoot him down, as he boards Air Force One at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in New York City.
The FAA is temporarily grounding flights at airports in Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina. This allows military aircraft – an F-22 stealth fighter from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, and tanker aircraft from multiple locations – to get into position.
At 2:39 p.m., the F-22 flying at 58,000 feet fired a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile which stalled the balloon, which was flying at an altitude of 60,000 to 65,000 feet. The military begins efforts to recover the balloon, which fell six nautical miles from shore in approximately 47 feet of water. The amphibious ship USS Carter Hall, the destroyer USS Oscar Austin and the cruiser Philippine Sea are in the area to assist in the recovery. Navy divers are able to descend to the site if necessary.
Once the ball is recovered, the intelligence community will begin efforts to further analyze the ball.
“It actually gave us several days to analyze this ball [and] learn a lot about what this balloon did, how it worked, why the PRC might use balloons like this,” a senior DoD official said. “We learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. And I guess if we manage to salvage some aspect of the debris, we’ll learn even more. »
Later Saturday, China issues a statement calling the shooting a violation of international practice and threatening repercussions. The US government speaks directly with Beijing about the mission. The Department of State informs its allies and partners around the world.
“The balloon never posed a military or physical threat to the American people. However, its intrusion into our airspace for several days was an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” the senior DoD official said.