By Andrew Thornebrooke and Frank Fang
The U.S. military is currently tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon over Montana, according to a senior Pentagon official.
“The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder in a Feb. 2 statement.
The high-altitude surveillance balloon allegedly floated over the Aleutian islands and Canada before crossing over the airspace of Montana, according to an NBC report that cited three unnamed government officials.
Ryder said that North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) detected the balloon some days ago and that the military had taken measures to conceal any sensitive information that could be spotted from such a craft.
“The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely,” Ryder said. “The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
A senior defense official said that Pentagon leadership including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting to determine whether or not the balloon should be shot down, but ultimately decided against that course of action “due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.”
While declining to specify the exact dimensions of the balloon, the official said the Pentagon assessed that the balloon, which is traveling in the atmosphere over U.S. airspace, is “large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area.”
The official said that the balloon’s “current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites,” without providing detail.
“Our best assessment at the moment is that whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit,” the official said, using an acronym for the Chinese regime’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.
“But out of an abundance of caution, we have taken additional mitigation steps. I’m not going to go into what those are. But we know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over. And we are taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk,” the official added.
While surveillance balloons like this have crossed into the United States several times over the past years, a “distinguishing factor” in this instance, according to the official, is how long it has stayed over U.S. airspace.
The official added the Pentagon has “engaged PRC officials with urgency” through several channels, including the Chinese Embassy in the United States and the U.S. Embassy in China.
“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the official said, but declined to offer details about the content of its message to China.
When asked if China “wanted” the balloon to be spotted, the official declined to speculate.
“I don’t know why they did what they did. I will say that the past number of times it did not loiter over the continental United States for an extended period of time. It’s different,” the official said.
The incident comes as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state, is increasing its espionage efforts against the United States and its citizens, and has become increasingly belligerent towards its neighbors in Asia, as well as Western democracies.
Relatedly, it was recently reported that a covert overseas police station operated by China in New York City had been shut down following a reported FBI raid.
Experts have warned with increasing frequency that the CCP is preparing its military for a war to seize Taiwan that would likely draw it into conflict with the United States. As such U.S. officials have said that the regime is studying the United States’ military capabilities and building technologies with the explicit purpose of overcoming them.
This article was updated to include remarks by a Pentagon official.