The U.S. military is tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering for days over the United States, but the Pentagon says it has no plans to shoot the spy balloon down.
The balloon, first reported by civilians on a plane, was spotted flying over Montana, the site of several air bases and the home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The balloon, about the size of three Greyhound buses, flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana, according to The New York Times. A senior defense official told NBC News that the balloon is still over the U.S. but declined to say where it is now.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the US government has been tracking the balloon for several days. Ryder said the balloon was “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
Flights arriving and departing from Billings-Logan International Airport were temporarily halted after the balloon was spotted, and, according to a military source, F-22 stealth fighter jets were put on alert.
A senior US defense official speaking on background to CNN said senior military officials had advised President Joe Biden not to shoot it down due to fear the debris could pose a safety threat to people on the ground.
“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China],” the senior defense official said. “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”
Late Thursday, the Canadian Department of National Defense said a high-altitude surveillance balloon had been detected and was being “actively tracked” by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). However, it was unclear if it was a second spy balloon being tracked.
In the brief statement, the agency said “Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.”
What is China saying?
According to China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning, China is investigating the incident and claims it follows international law when it comes to another country’s airspace.
“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention to violate the territory and airspace of any sovereign countries,” Mao said Friday.
She also said both sides need to proceed “calmly and carefully.”
“As for the balloon, as I’ve mentioned just now, we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully.”
Why didn’t the US shoot it down?
According to US military officials, the balloon could be dangerous to people on the ground should it be shot down.
The Pentagon also addressed concerns over the balloon’s path near sensitive military installations. According to military officials, the information the balloon could gather could be gotten in other ways.
A November Department of Defense report showed China has a satellite fleet of more than 260 systems.
Is this the first time this has happened?
After the sighting this week, the U.S. Department of Defense said in a statement: “Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.”
Does the US have surveillance balloons?
The U.S. has a surveillance balloon program, and according to a story from Politico, the Pentagon spent around $3.8 million on balloon projects during the past two years. An additional $27 million is set to be spent this year on the high-altitude inflatables which fly between 60,000 and 90,000 feet, the story reported.
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