Pentagon tracking suspected Chinese spy balloon over US
The US government has been tracking a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the country for several days, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said.
At President Joe Biden’s request, top military officials considered shooting the balloon down but decided doing so could pose a safety threat to scores of people on the ground, said a senior US defence official, adding “we are confident that [the balloon] belongs to the [People’s Republic of China].”
The balloon was spotted on Wednesday floating over Billings, Montana, which is home to one of the country’s three known major nuclear missile silo fields. The other two are in North Dakota and Wyoming.
“Clearly, the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” said the official, briefing reporters anonymously, adding “the current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites.” But the Pentagon did not believe it presents a significant intelligence gathering risk.
The Asian country has sent surveillance balloons over the US in the past. But this one has lingered in US airspace relatively long.
The US has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter, Associates Press cited a defence official as saying.
The balloon, which is the size of three buses, had been tracked near the Aleutian Islands and Canada before entering the US, Reuters reported.
Balloons, unlike satellites, can be launched cheaply. They are not directly steered but, according to a 2005 study for the Air Force’s Airpower Research Institute, can be roughly guided to a target area by changing altitudes to catch different wind currents.
Retired US Colonel Steve Ganyard said intentionally deploying a spy balloon would be highly provocative, adding the balloon might have drifted. He even mentioned the little value a spy balloon carries, as Chinese satellites are able to collect information.
The balloon “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” said Pentagon spokesman Ryder, adding it was currently travelling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic.
The incident comes amid slowly simmering tensions between the US and China on Taiwan, the South China Sea, and a number of other issues.