WASHINGTON — The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been sighted over U.S. airspace for a few days, but the Pentagon has decided not to shoot it down due to the risk of harm to people on the ground, officials said Thursday.
A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters that the US was “very confident” it was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and had flown over sensitive locations to gather intelligence. One of the places the balloon was sighted was in Montana, where Malmstrom Air Force Base is one of the country’s three nuclear missile silo fields. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Brig. Pentagon press secretary General Patrick Ryder issued a brief statement on the matter, saying the government is continuing to track the balloon. He said it “currently operates at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
He said similar balloon activity had been observed in recent years. He added that the US has taken steps to ensure it is not collecting sensitive information.
The defense official said the US had “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels, communicating the seriousness of the matter.
The Pentagon announcement comes days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China. It’s not clear if this will affect his travel plans, which the State Department hasn’t officially announced.
Tristan Day/US Air Force via AP
The US is expanding its military presence in Asia in a series of moves aimed at countering Beijing and reassuring Indo-Pacific allies that America will stand by them against threats from China and North Korea.
The senior defense official said the US had fighter jets, including F-22s, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered to do so by the White House. The Pentagon eventually advised against it, noting that even if the balloon were over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough to put people in danger.
The official declined to specify the balloon’s size but said it was large enough for commercial pilots to see despite its great height.
The official said what worried them about that launch was the altitude at which the balloon flew and the time it lingered over one location, without giving details.
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