The US Department of Defense confirmed on Thursday that the armed forces were actively monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the northern portion of the US.
A statement issued by the department indicates the surveillance balloon does not pose a military or physical threat to the region, and that the device sits “well above commercial air traffic and doesn’t pose a threat to civil aviation.”
The device was first noticed as early as Wednesday over the US state of Montana, and later tracked over Alaska and Canada. Officials have not detailed it’s current exact location.
Also unknown is the exact size of the balloon; however, some speculation suggests it’s the size of three school buses. A senior defense official quoted in the Pentagon release notes the balloon was spotted by pilots. “It’s sizeable,” they commented.
Photo from KSVI-TV shows a massive Chinese spy balloon over Montana. The U.S. military is tracking it pic.twitter.com/BWUBERWO1J
— BNO News Live (@BNODesk) February 2, 2023
Although there has been no official confirmation the “high-altitude surveillance balloon” belongs to the Chinese government, American officials stated during a Thursday briefing that intelligence officials had “very high confidence” it did belong to the People’s Republic of China.
The Pentagon release further notes the US has reached out to Chinese counterparts “with urgency, through multiple channels” to underscore the “seriousness” of the matter at hand.
“We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland,” a senior defense official is quoted as saying in the statement.
US officials indicated their plan of action at the moment is to simply allow the balloon to “continue to float above the United States, rather than attempted to shoot [it] down” since the “kinetic force to take the balloon out” would put civilians at risk.
“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective,” the official said. “But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”
Moments before the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the balloon, US media reported an emergency meeting had been convened on Wednesday to determine how to address the issue. The meeting included input from US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and NORTHCOM/NORAD Com. Gen. Glen VanHerck, among various other defense officials. Also included was US President Joe Biden.
It was earlier reported that there was a “window” where officials could have taken down the balloon but that officials ruled against the move. NORAD had reportedly sent F-22 Raptors from Nellis Air Force Base. It was also reported that air traffic had been momentarily halted between 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. local time at Montana’s Billings Logan International Airport.
The manner of activity is not unprecedented, defense officials pointed out during their debrief. Unlike past occurrences, however, officials stated the difference this time is the balloon is staying over the US for a much longer period.
As the balloon maintained a position over Montana, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) wrote a letter to Austin underscoring the necessity for establishing the balloon’s flight path.
“The fact that this balloon was occupying Montana airspace creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile fields are the target of this intelligence gathering mission,” the letter reads.
“It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised US national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the US that this spy balloon was utilizing.”
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has stated he was briefed on the development on Wednesday, adding that the state’s National Guard service had been alerted to the situation.
The incident comes as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, marking a first time a US foreign minister has met with the Chinese leader in six years.
Source: Sputnik news agency