A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon has been flying over the United States for several days, but the Pentagon has decided not to shoot it down for fear of injuring people on the ground, US officials said.
The U.S. took “custody” of the balloon when it entered U.S. airspace and was monitoring it with a piloted U.S. military aircraft, a Pentagon official told reporters on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
The US has “very high confidence” that it was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and that it flew over sensitive locations to gather information, they added.
One of the places where the balloon was spotted was in Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses about 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, including the nuclear-armed Minuteman III.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking an altitude surveillance balloon that is currently over the continental United States,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.
“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
He said similar surveillance activities had been seen in recent years, adding that the US had taken steps to ensure the balloon did not collect sensitive information.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, while traveling in the Philippines, called 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 secret national security briefing for congressional leaders and the Republican and Democratic heads of the intelligence committees.
A defense official said the US had “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 interesting.
“They have satellites that are sophisticated, and it’s not clear to me what intelligence advantage they could get by 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 is pursuing; be aggressive in pursuing your interests until there is strong pushback.”
The Pentagon’s announcement comes days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China. It is unclear whether this will affect his travel plans, which have not been officially announced by the State Department.
The US is expanding its military presence in Asia in a series of moves aimed at countering Beijing and reassuring Indo-Pacific allies that it will stand with them against threats from China and North Korea. On Thursday, Austin announced the expansion of military cooperation with the Philippines, a longtime ally in Southeast Asia.
A senior defense official said the US had mobilized fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered by the White House.
The Pentagon ultimately recommended against such action, noting that even though the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would have created a large enough debris field to potentially put people at risk.
The official said the current flight path would take the balloon over a number of sensitive sites, but did not provide details.
Another US official said the spy plane was tracked near the Aleutian Islands and Canada before entering the United States.
The official would not specify the size of the balloon, but said it was large enough that, despite its high altitude, it could be seen by commercial pilots.
On social media, people near Billings shared photos of faint, round objects high in the sky that were separated from the moon. The Pentagon did not provide any visual representation.
Spy balloons have flown over the United States several times in recent years, but this one appears to have lingered longer than in previous cases, the official noted.
Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said such balloons are considered a low-cost method of intelligence gathering and were widely used by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“The timing of this incident is strange, occurring just days before Minister Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing,” he said.