The U.S. government is monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been flying over the northern part of the country since earlier this week but has held off on shooting it out of the sky, senior defense officials confirmed Thursday.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. “The U.S. government … continues to track and monitor it closely.”
Ryder stressed that the balloon is currently traveling in the atmosphere at an altitude “well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” and noted that after the balloon was detected, the government “acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
The balloon, first reported by NBC News, was first spotted over Montana on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, traveling in the Philippines at the time, quickly convened a meeting of top military leaders, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and U.S. Northern Command head Gen. Glen VanHerck, a senior defense official told reporters
President Biden was briefed on the balloon and asked for military options, with Milley and VanHerck recommending he “not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.”
“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday” to down the balloon “over some sparsely populated areas in Montana, but we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday,” the official said.
They declined to detail the exact size of the aerial object but said it was “large enough to cause damage” if downed.
The official also said the balloon is still over the U.S. but declined to say where it is currently.
The U.S. government is very confident the balloon belongs to China, as instances of such surveillance have been observed over the past several years, including prior to the Biden administration.
But while it is not unprecedented for Beijing to fly similar stratospheric balloons over or near U.S. airspace, the aerial object is staying over the country longer than usual this time around, the official said.
They stressed that, though the balloon’s current flight path carries it over “a number of sensitive sites,” it’s assessed as having “limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective.”
The officials also said the U.S. has communicated the “seriousness with which we take this issue,” to the Chinese government “through multiple channels” both in Washington, D.C., and in Beijing.
“We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland,” they said.
Tensions between the United States and China are particularly strained after the Pentagon earlier Thursday announced it would ramp up the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
China views the bolstered U.S. presence as an encroaching threat to its claims on the South China Sea as well as the nearby independent island of Taiwan.