- US officials told reporters the military was prepared to shoot down the balloon but was deterred by the potential for damage.
A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon has been flying over the United States for a couple of days, but the Pentagon has decided not to shoot it down for fear of harming people on the ground, US officials said.
The United States took “custody” of the balloon as it entered US airspace and observed it with US military aircraft piloted, an official told Pentagon reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity.
The United States has “very high confidence” that it is a high-altitude Chinese balloon and that it was flying over sensitive sites to gather information, the official added.
One of the places where the balloon was seen was Montana, which is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, where there are about 150 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the nuclear-capable Minuteman III.
“The U.S. government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters.
He said similar surveillance activity has been seen in recent years, adding that the United States had taken steps to ensure the balloon did not collect sensitive information.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, while traveling in the Philippines, convened a meeting of senior Pentagon officials on Wednesday to discuss the incident.
Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would request a “Gang of Eight” briefing, referring to a classified national security briefing for congressional leaders, and Republican and Democratic leaders, of the intelligence committees.
The defense official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
Glenn Carle, a national security expert, told Al Jazeera that the balloon flight was curious.
“They have satellites that are sophisticated and it’s not clear to me what intelligence advantage they could gain from doing this,” said Carle, a former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats at the CIA. “Perhaps it fits with the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy that China has pursued: to be aggressive in pursuing its interests until there is a sharp pushback.”
The senior defense official said the U.S. had mobilized fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered to do so by the White House.
The Pentagon ultimately recommended no such action, noting that even though the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough to potentially put people at risk.
The official said the current flight path would carry the balloon over several sensitive sites, but gave no details.
Another U.S. official said the spy had been tracked near the Aleutian Islands and Canada before entering the United States.
In a subsequent statement, Canada’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed that a high-altitude surveillance balloon had been detected and that its movements were being “actively tracked” by NORAD, a bi-national US military command.
“Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the safety of its airspace, including monitoring a possible second incident,” the statement said.
The U.S. official did not specify the size of the balloon but said it was large enough that, despite its high altitude, commercial pilots could see it.
On social media, people close to Billings shared photos of pale, round objects high in the sky that were separated from the moon. The Pentagon did not provide images.
Spy balloons have flown over the United States several times in recent years, but this balloon appeared to take longer than in previous cases, the official noted.
Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said such balloons were seen as a low-cost method of gathering intelligence and had been widely used by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“The timing of this incident is curious, as it comes just days before Secretary Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing,” he said.
Source: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES