The Chinese spy balloon, a suspected high-altitude surveillance tool, is reportedly looming over the northern US, as per defense officials.
US Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said that the government tracked the balloon for several days as it traveled above the US. He said:
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now.”
He added that 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.”
Ryder also stated that the "U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information" after the balloon was detected.
Although officials did not specifically mention how high the balloon was flying, they noted that it was traveling above civilian air traffic and below “outer space.”
A senior defense official further confirmed that authorities are confident the balloon belongs to China:
“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China. Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”
According to the BBC, the Chinese spy balloon flew over Alaska's Aleutian Islands and appeared over the city of Billings in Montana on Wednesday after passing through Canada. It was reportedly last seen above the western state of Montana at the time of writing.
The sparsely populated state of Montana is home to one of the only three nuclear missile silo fields in the U.S. It is located at Malmstrom Air Force Base and several officials believe that the spy balloon flew over sensitive sites to collect information.
A look into the US' response to the Chinese spy balloon
The U.S. Pentagon recently revealed that they allegedly tracked a Chinese spy balloon over the northern U.S. States. The United States reportedly took “custody” of the balloon after it entered the U.S. airspace.
Officials told the press that the surveillance tool was observed with piloted U.S. military aircraft. Authorities also said that fighter jets, including F-22s, were mobilized at the location, but military leaders reportedly advised President Joe Biden to avoid shooting the balloon out of the sky.
Officials reportedly feared a safety threat that could have been caused by the debris and President Biden accepted the advice. The Billings, Montana, airport reportedly issued a ground stop while the military mobilized assets including the fighter jets:
“We wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the airspace around that potential area. But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn't drive the risk down low enough. So we didn't take the shot.”
A senior official told CNN that while the Chinese spy balloon traveled over “a number of sensitive sites,” it reportedly did not show a risk related to intelligence gathering.
The official mentioned that the balloon had “limited additive value” from an intelligence collection perspective. However, the authorities have also confirmed that the U.S. is “taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”
Officials are also tracking the abilities that the spycraft could have in “gaining insights.” The news of the Chinese spy balloon broke while CIA Director William Burns was speaking at an unrelated event in Washington DC and called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” currently facing the US.
The sighting of the alleged surveillance tool comes ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to China next week. Blinken is expected to be in Beijing to hold talks on a wide range of issues, including security, Taiwan and COVID-19.
According to the Financial Times, the diplomat will also be meeting Chinese President Xi JinPing during his visit. It is not known if the sighting of the alleged Chinese spy balloon will alter the conditions of Blinken's trip.