Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon seen flying over western US
Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon seen flying over western US

Washington: A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon is being tracked by the US since it has been spotted in US airspace for days, but the Pentagon decided to shoot it down to protect people on the ground, officials said Thursday. At a time when tensions are already high, the discovery of the balloon has further strained US-China relations.

A senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon that the US has "very high confidence" that the object was a Chinese high-altitude balloon that was flying to gather information on sensitive locations.

One of the states where the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three nuclear missile silo areas in the country. The representative spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

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The government is still monitoring the balloon, according to a brief statement from Brig. Pentagon Press Secretary General Patrick Ryder. It does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground, he said, because it is "currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic."

He claimed that similar ballooning activity has been observed in recent years. He continued by saying that the US has taken precautions to prevent the collection of sensitive data.

President Joe Biden was briefed and asked to present alternatives to the military, according to a senior administration official who was also not authorized to discuss the sensitive information publicly. Army General Lloyd Austin and the Department of Defense

Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against using "kinetic action" because of the dangers it posed to the safety of those on the ground. That recommendation was accepted by Biden.

According to the defense official, the US "engaged" and conveyed the seriousness of the situation to Chinese officials through multiple channels.

The incident comes just before Secretary of State Antony Blinken's first visit to Beijing, which is scheduled for later this week and aims to try to find some common ground. Beijing and Washington have been talking about his imminent arrival despite the fact that the visit has not yet been officially announced.

It was not immediately clear whether Blinken's travel plans would be affected by the balloon's discovery.

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As the senior defense official said, the US had fighter jets including F-22s ready to shoot down the balloons if the White House gave the order. Ultimately, the Pentagon advised against it, noting that despite the balloon being in a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would have created a large enough debris field to put people at risk.

It was unclear what the military was doing to prevent it from collecting sensitive information, as well as what would happen to the balloon if it was not shot down.

The fact that this balloon was in Montana airspace raises serious concerns that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Field were used to collect this intelligence, according to Sen. Steve Danes, R-Montana, in a letter sent to Austin. The ones are the goal of the mission. on Thursday.

"It is critical to establish within the next 24 hours the flight path of this balloon, any compromised US national security assets and all telecommunications or IT infrastructure on the ground," he said.

The spy balloon, according to a defense official, was attempting to fly over the Montana missile fields, but the US determined it had value in providing China with intelligence that it had already obtained through other channels such as spy satellites. Can't, "Limited."

The official declined to say how large the balloon was, but claimed that commercial pilots could still see it despite being at a high altitude. From 1:30 p.m. As of 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, all air travel at Billings Logan International Airport in Montana was suspended as the military offered the White House options.

The Billings Gazette photographed a large white balloon hovering over the area, but the Pentagon declined to confirm whether it was a surveillance balloon.

According to Gazette photographer Larry Meyer, the balloon could be seen drifting in and out of the clouds and appeared to have a solar array hanging from below.

Without going into detail, the defense official said they were concerned about this launch because of the height of the balloon and the amount of time it was hovering over a specific area.

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

The constant stream of worrying developments for our national security, according to Gianforte, "from the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland," he said in a statement.

The administration official reported that the issue was discussed with the staffs of congressional leaders on Thursday afternoon. "China's brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilising action that must be addressed," tweeted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California.

The South China Sea, Taiwan, the Xinjiang region in western China, the crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong, and many other issues are causing particularly high tensions with China.

Not least among these irritants are China's ongoing trade and technological disputes, its refusal to restrain North Korea's expanding ballistic missile programme, and its covert support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In response to nearby operations by 34 Chinese military aircraft and nine warships, which are part of Beijing's strategy to unnerve and intimidate the self-governing island democracy, Taiwan scrambled fighter jets, put its navy on alert, and activated missile systems on Tuesday.

The central line in the Taiwan Strait, which has long served as an unofficial buffer zone between the two sides that split during a civil war in 1949, was crossed by twenty of those aircraft. 

Beijing has also intensified its planning for a possible blockade or military action against Taiwan, which has caused growing alarm among military chiefs, diplomats, and elected officials in the US, Taiwan's main ally.

First to report on the surveillance balloon was NBC News. It's unclear whether the balloon that some Montanans claim to have seen in the sky around the time of Wednesday's airport closure was actually there.

Chase Doak reported seeing a "big white circle in the sky" from a Billings office window, but he claimed it was too small to be the moon. He snapped a few pictures, then hurried home to get a camera with a better lens so he could snap more pictures and videos. 

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Doak claimed that although it appeared stationary to him for the 45 minutes he could see it, the video suggested it was slowly moving. He said, "I thought it might be a real UFO. Therefore, I wanted to be sure to record it and take as many pictures as I could.

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