A high altitude balloon hovers over Billings, Mont . on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. Credit – Larry Mayer – The Billings Gazette/AP
The US military in recent days has identified a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying high over the northern part of the continental United States, prompting President Joe Biden to ask about military options against it, according to senior defense officials.
“The United States government has spotted and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon just over the mainland United States,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement. “The balloon is currently flying at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
Biden was briefed on the matter on Wednesday when he asked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to develop options against the large, slow-moving balloon, according to a senior US official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The Pentagon had considered using warplanes to shoot it down as it traveled over Montana, but decided not to do so for fear such an act would create a debris field and endanger Americans on the ground, the official said.
The U.S. military was working with civil aviation authorities to halt flights to and from the southern Montana town of Billings, the official said, even mobilizing F-22 stealth fighter jets, which are the Air Force’s primary airstrike-air fighter aircraft .
“We got some things on station if the decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana,” the officer said. “We wanted to make sure that … the airspace around this potential area is cleared. But even with those safeguards in place – and it was the verdict of our military commanders – it didn’t lower the risk low enough, so we didn’t try.”
The official would not say how big the balloon was or how high it was flying, simply saying that it is “well above the area where civilian air traffic is active,” so it’s believed it poses no threat to civilian air traffic represents aviation.
The Biden administration has determined that the balloon does not give China any additional surveillance capabilities beyond what it can already gather through spy satellites currently orbiting the Earth, the official said.
When the balloon was spotted by US intelligence, the official said the military acted quickly to protect itself from the Chinese gathering sensitive information. “The current trajectory takes them over a number of sensitive locations,” the official told reporters. “As a precaution, we took additional mitigation measures.” The official declined to describe exactly what those actions were.
Montana is one of five states that host the US military’s land-based Minuteman III missile fields.
“A handful” of surveillance balloons have been sighted in recent years, but this one “appears to be hanging around for a long time,” the official said.
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