It would have made for a great Saturday afternoon spectacle for South Carolinians who love to walk on the beach.
Two US fighter jets flew above them, equipped with air-to-air missiles. Then, a launch.
fired one ‘Sidewinder’ short-range missile from an altitude 58,000ft. It was 2.39pm Eastern US time.
The moment was captured by eyewitnesses in Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) and will be a jolt to American-Chinese relations. The complex operation was being monitored by military commanders four hundred miles north at the Pentagon, Virginia.
The missile’s impact was evident in amateur photos taken on the beach. The hit was perfect at 11 miles.
The balloon, which was a dot in sky that had caused days of intrigue and amusement, but also diplomatic drama, deflated within seconds.
It fell quickly, reaching more than 60,000 feet into the Atlantic below. It was nearing 4AM in Beijing.
Officials would have been notified immediately that the “weather balloon” was down. It is clear that they were watching and controlling its movements.
It was only hours later that the Foreign Ministry made the predictable angry statement of , “strong dissatisfaction & protest against the US’s forceful attack on a civilian unmanned airplane”.
It was disappearing along America’s eastern coast as the sun rose above Beijing. Six miles from South Carolina’s coast, however, a flotilla containing boats and ships was already arriving.
The debris was collected by vessels and experts from the US Coast Guard and US Navy, as well as the FBI, over a distance of approximately seven miles.
Divers and unmanned submarines will be comb the seafloor, which is conveniently shallow at 40ft. Although the weather is expected to improve over the coming days, this operation will be challenging.
It may take a few days before a specialist recovery vessel can be ready to remove larger pieces of wreckage.
The goal is to extract valuable information from the debris. Investigators are likely to attempt to reconstruct the payload of the balloon and learn from it.
They will be curious to find out if any US technology was found in the Chinese equipment. US officials suspect China technology and commercial theft.
This is a serious moment beyond the spectacle at the Carolina beaches and the “balloon watch” gimmicks on cable news channels.
The relationship between China and America is the most important geo-political relation.
It is a relationship that affects us all. Before the curious white speck appeared in Montana’s skies, it was in a terrible way.