The Pentagon said Thursday it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying high over the northwest United States, reviving tensions between the two countries just days ahead of a rare visit to Beijing by top US diplomat Antony Blinken.
The Defense Department has identified a Chinese surveillance balloon that has flown over the western state of Montana, where it’s been observed using a variety of techniques. The balloon has been detected over a number of sensitive areas, including one of the three nuclear missile silo fields in the country that are located in Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, a senior defense official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
It has been flying at a relatively high altitude, compared to previous balloon activity, and it appears to have been lingering over a particular spot for longer than other such flights, the defense official told reporters.
Despite that, the balloon doesn’t present a significant threat to U.S. intelligence or aviation safety. It is also unlikely to provide any extra information to China that it doesn’t already have through satellites in orbit, the official said.
If the balloon was shot down by a fighter jet, it could create a debris field that would put Americans on the ground at risk, according to a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The Pentagon weighed whether to scramble aircraft to shoot down the balloon, but it ultimately determined that it would not be in the best interests of America’s security.
The military had considered sending aircraft such as F-22 Raptors from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to shoot down the balloon, but it determined that doing so could result in a dangerous debris field and would endanger people on the ground, the official told reporters. The Pentagon recommended against taking any kinetic action and President Joe Biden took that advice, the official said.
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The balloon has lingered over the area for several days, and social media users in Montana have posted photos of what they believe to be the object. Some have even reported seeing military planes in the area.
It may have been an accident, though, and not a malicious act by China, as some have suggested. Such balloons aren’t controlled after their launch, so it’s possible that the Chinese accidentally blew off course and ended up over some part of the United States that they weren’t expecting.
Nevertheless, it’s still an “irritant” to US-China ties, says Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC. That’s because the spying is done on an industrial scale, with small bits of intelligence gathered and transmitted in countless ways. What’s more, a military balloon would be much more difficult to bring down than a missile or a ship, Singleton said. This is because the spy craft needs to be spotted, and then brought down by a fighter jet or other aircraft.