The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over its airspace for a couple of days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm for people on the ground, officials said Thursday.
The discovery of the balloon puts a further strain on U.S.-China relations at a time of heightened tensions.
A senior defence official told reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S. has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the U.S.’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Canadian officials are aware of the reports about the balloon, with a senior source with direct knowledge of the situation telling CBC News they are assessing the information and discussing it with their U.S. counterparts.
No threat to people below
U.S. Brig.-Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, provided a brief statement, saying the government continues to track the balloon.
He said it is “currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
Similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years, Ryder said, noting that the U.S. took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.
A senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information, said U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of risks to the safety of people on the ground. Biden accepted that recommendation.
The defence official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the U.S. Senate intelligence committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not surprising.
“The level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last 5 years,” Rubio said on Twitter.
The incident comes as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to make his first trip to Beijing, expected this weekend, to try to find some common ground.
Although the trip has not been formally announced, both Beijing and Washington have been talking about his imminent arrival. It was not immediately clear if the discovery of the balloon would impact Blinken’s travel plans.
U.S. readied fighter jets
The senior defence official said the U.S. did get fighter jets, including F-22s, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered to by the White House.
The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.
It was not clear what the military was doing to prevent it from collecting sensitive information or what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t shot down.
“The fact that this balloon was occupying Montana airspace creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile fields are the target of this intelligence gathering mission,” wrote Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., in a letter sent Thursday to Austin.
“It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised U.S. national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the U.S. that this spy balloon was utilizing.”
The defence official said the spy balloon was trying to fly over the Montana missile fields, but the U.S. has assessed that the balloon has “limited” value in terms of providing China with intelligence it couldn’t already collect by other means, such as through spy satellites.
The official would not specify the size of the balloon but said it was large enough that despite its high altitude, commercial pilots could see it.
All air traffic at Billings-Logan International Airport in Billings, Mont., was halted from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday as the military provided options to the White House.
A photograph of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by the Billings Gazette, but the Pentagon would not confirm if that was the surveillance balloon. The balloon could be seen drifting in and out of clouds and had what appeared to be a solar array hanging from the bottom, said Gazette photographer Larry Mayer.
Without providing specifics, the defence official said what concerned them about this launch was the altitude of the balloon and the length of time it lingered over a location.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was briefed on Wednesday about the situation after the Montana National Guard was notified of an ongoing military operation taking place in the state’s airspace, according to a statement from the Republican governor and spokesperson Brooke Stroyke.
“From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I’m deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security,” Gianforte said in a statement.
The administration official said congressional leaders were briefed on the matter Thursday afternoon. U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted, “China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed.”
Tensions with China are particularly high on numerous issues, ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region and the clampdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Not least on that list of irritants is China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to rein in North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program and ongoing disputes over trade and technology.
The surveillance balloon was first reported by NBC News.
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