A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, U.S. February 1, 2023, in this picture obtained from social media.
Chase Doak via Reuters
The U.S. military on Saturday prepared to take down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been transiting across the country for the past several days.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina on Saturday afternoon. The departures were paused “to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort,” a representative told CNBC.
President Joe Biden broke his silence about the balloon for the first time Saturday, telling a group of reporters, “We’re going to take care of it.”
The high-altitude balloon was initially spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. Defense officials said the Pentagon considered shooting down the balloon earlier this week but decided against it after briefing Biden. The decision was made in consultation with senior leaders, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Biden concluded that the U.S. would not shoot down the balloon because debris from it could cause damage on the ground, a Pentagon official said. Moreover, any information the balloon collects would have “limited additive value” compared with China’s spy satellites.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that the balloon was a civilian weather airship intended for scientific research that was blown off course. It described the incident as a result of a “force majeure” for which it was not responsible.
This claim was summarily dismissed by U.S. officials. A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday night that the object was clearly a surveillance balloon that was flying over sensitive sites to collect intelligence.
“We have noted the PRC statement of regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law and is unacceptable that this has occurred,” the official said.
The presence of the balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to indefinitely postpone what was to be an already tense trip to China on Friday.
The visit was intended to reinforce communication and cooperation between the two countries as tensions have deepened over China’s increasing military aggression toward Taiwan and closer alliances with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Instead, Blinken told China’s director of Central Foreign Affairs Office, Wang Yi, in a phone call Friday that the balloon was an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip,” according to a readout of the discussion.
This story is developing. Please check back for updates.
—CNBC’s Christina Wilkie and Amanda Macias contributed to this report