Pentagon says Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western US

One of the places where hot air balloons were discovered was Montana, home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile storage sites at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

WASHINGTON — The United States is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that was spotted in U.S. airspace for several days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down out of fear of hurting other people. people on the ground, officials said Thursday. The discovery of the balloon adds strain to US-China relations at a time of heightened tensions.

A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters that the US was “very confident” it was a Chinese high-altitude balloon and that it was flying over sensitive locations to gather information. One of the places where hot air balloons were discovered was Montana, home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile storage sites at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Brigade Chief General Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, issued a brief statement on the matter, saying the government continued to monitor the balloon. It is “currently traveling at a much higher altitude than commercial air traffic and poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground,” he said.

He said similar ballooning activity has been seen in the past few years. He added that the US has taken steps to ensure it does not collect sensitive information.

A senior administration official, who is also not authorized to discuss sensitive information publicly, said President Joe Biden had been notified and asked the military to make options. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of the risks to the safety of those on the ground. Biden accepted that recommendation.

The defense official said the US was “in contact” with Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the severity of the problem.

The incident comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to make his first trip to Beijing, scheduled for this weekend, to try to find common ground. Although the trip has not been officially announced, both Beijing and Washington have talked about his coming.

It is not clear if the discovery of the hot air balloon will affect Blinken’s travel plans.

The senior defense official said the United States has sent fighter jets, including the F-22, ready to shoot down the balloon if the White House orders it. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even if the balloon were to fly over the sparsely populated area of ​​Montana, its size would create a debris large enough to be potentially dangerous. for everyone.

It’s not clear what the military is doing to prevent the collection of sensitive information or what would have happened to the balloon if it hadn’t been shot down.

In a letter sent Thursday to Austin, Senator Steve Daines, R-Mont., wrote: “This hot air balloon’s entry into Montana airspace creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base and United States intercontinental ballistic missile site is the target. this intelligence-gathering mission. … It is important to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised national security assets of the United States, and all telecommunications or IT infrastructure on the ground in the United States that the balloon is in. this spy balloon is in use.”

The defense official said the spy balloon was attempting to fly over the Montana missile sites, but the US has assessed it as having “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence to China that it does not can be obtained by other means, such as through spy satellites.

The official did not specify the size of the balloon, but said it was large enough that commercial pilots could see it even at high altitudes. All air traffic was halted at Montana’s Billings Logan International Airport from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, as the military presented options to the White House.

A photo of a large white balloon hovering over the area was taken by The Billings Gazette, but the Pentagon did not confirm whether it was a surveillance balloon. Gazette photographer Larry Mayer said the balloon could be seen floating between the clouds and what appeared to be a solar panel hanging from the bottom.

Defense officials said what worried them about the launch was the altitude at which the balloon was flying and the length of time it flew over a location, but did not provide details.

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte said he was briefed on Wednesday of the situation after the Montana National Guard was notified of an ongoing military operation in Montana airspace, according to a statement from the governor. Republican Governor and Spokesperson Brooke Stroyke.

“From spy balloons to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I am deeply troubled by the remarkable developments that continue to unfold. alarming to our national security,” Gianforte said in a statement.

The administration official said congressional leaders were briefed on the matter Thursday afternoon. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted, “China’s blatant disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing act that needs to be addressed.”

Tensions with China are particularly high on many issues, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region and the repression of democracy activists in Hong Kong. At least on that list of irritants are China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to rein in North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program, and rivalries. ongoing disputes over trade and technology.

On Tuesday, Taiwan sent fighter jets, put its navy on alert and activated missile systems in response to the nearby activities of 34 Chinese military aircraft and nine capital ships. part of Beijing’s strategy to destabilize and threaten self-governing island democracy.

Twenty of them crossed the central line in the Taiwan Strait, long an unofficial buffer zone between the two sides, which had been divided during the 1949 civil war.

Beijing has also stepped up preparations for a possible blockade or military action against Taiwan, which has raised growing concern among military leaders, diplomats and other officials. elected office in the US, Taiwan’s main ally.

The surveillance ball was first reported by NBC News.

Several Montana residents reported seeing an unusual object in the sky around the time the airport closed Wednesday, but it was unclear if what they saw was a balloon.

From his office window in Billings, Chase Doak said he saw “a large white circle in the sky” that he said was too small to be the moon.

He took some pictures, then ran home to get a camera with a stronger lens and took more photos and videos. He was able to see it for about 45 minutes and it appeared to be stationary, but Doak said the video showed it moving slowly.

“I thought maybe it was a legitimate UFO,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure I recorded it and took as many pictures as I could.” Pentagon says Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western US

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