Chinese Spy Balloon Timeline

Susan Jones | February 6, 2023 | 9:01am EST
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(Photo: Screen capture)
(Photo: Screen capture)

( - "So, we've been tracking this high-altitude balloon for some time," a senior defense official told a press briefing on Saturday, February 4.

Here is the timeline laid out by the Pentagon and by other statements quoted below:

January 28: Chinese spy balloon enters the Alaska Joint Operating Area on January 28th, having entered the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone north of the Aleutian Islands, and therefore passing into sovereign U.S. airspace.

January 30: Balloon enters into Canadian airspace.

January 31: Balloon re-enters U.S. airspace over northern Idaho.

February 1: Billings Gazette (Montana) publishes photo of mysterious blob in the sky, a story that makes international headlines. President Biden reportedly authorizes shoot-down of spy balloon as soon as it poses no threat to people or property below.

February 2: Defense Department spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder issues a statement saying:

"The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now. The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely.

"The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.

"Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information."

February 3: President Joe Biden speaks about the January jobs report but refuses to take questions on anything other than the economy. "I’m not going to answer any questions about anything else because you never will cover this (economy)," he tells reporters at the White House.

February 3: Chinese Foreign Ministry issues statement, saying:

"The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure."

February 3: State Department issues statement, saying:

"Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi to convey that he will not be traveling to the People’s Republic of China at this time in light of the current presence of a high-altitude PRC surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace.

"The Secretary relayed that he had planned to visit Beijing to follow up on the agenda agreed to by President Biden and President Xi in November in Bali. The Secretary noted the PRC’s statement of regret but conveyed that this is an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip.

"The Secretary explained that in light of this ongoing issue, it would not be appropriate to visit Beijing at this time. He underscored that the United States is committed to diplomatic engagement and maintaining open lines of communication, and that he would be prepared to visit Beijing as soon as conditions allow."

February 4: Fighter aircraft from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fires a single missile into the balloon, causing it to crash into the ocean. 

February 4: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin releases statement, saying:

"This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People's Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace.

"The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters. 

"On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon's path. 

"After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload. In accordance with the President's direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities. 

"This action was taken in coordination, and with the full support, of the Canadian government. And we thank Canada for its contribution to tracking and analysis of the balloon through NORAD as it transited North America. 

"Today's deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC's unacceptable violation of our sovereignty."

February 4: "Senior Defense Official" and "Senior Military Official" hold off-camera, on-background press briefing after balloon is shot down.

February 4: President Biden makes his first comment on the Chinese spy balloon, telling reporters in Hagerstown, Md:

"On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down, on Wednesday, as soon as possible.  They decided — without doing damage to anyone on — on the ground. They decided that the best time to do that was as it got over water, outside — within our — within the 12-mile limit. They successfully took it down. And I want to compliment our aviators who did it.  And we’ll have more to report on this a little later."

February 4: Chinese Foreign Ministry issues statement, saying:

"Regarding the unintended entry of a Chinese unmanned airship into US airspace due to force majeure, the Chinese side has verified it and communicated it to the US side. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.

"Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. This is entirely an unexpected situation caused by force majeure and the facts are very clear.

"China always acts in strict accordance with international law and respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. We have no intention to violate and has never violated the territory or airspace of any sovereign country. Some politicians and media in the US have hyped it up to attack and smear China. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to that.

"Maintaining contact and communication at all levels is an important common understanding reached by the Chinese and US presidents at their meeting in Bali. One of the tasks of the diplomatic teams on both sides is to properly manage bilateral relations, particularly to manage some unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner.

"In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit. It is a matter for the US to make its latest announcement, and we respect that."

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