A suspicious Chinese “spy balloon” has been flying over the United States for several days. Senior US officials advised US President Joe Biden not to shoot it down, fearing the debris posed a threat to the safety of people and facilities on the ground.
“The United States government has located and is tracking a high-altitude reconnaissance balloon that is currently over the continental United States,” Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder Brigade.
“Currently, the balloon flies at an altitude well above the ceiling for commercial flights and poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground,” he added.
US Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the spy balloon was alarming but not surprising.
“The level of espionage directed against our country by Beijing has increased dramatically over the past 5 years, has become more intense and brazen,” Rubio wrote on Twitter.
The news came as CIA Director William Burns was speaking at an event at Georgetown University in Washington, where he called China the “greatest geopolitical challenge” facing the United States. are currently facing.
Relations between the United States and China have been strained recently over Taiwan, China’s human rights abuses and Beijing’s military activity in the South China Sea.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is due to visit China in the coming days.
A senior US Department of Defense official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said the United States had been in control of the balloon since it entered US airspace a few days ago and was monitoring it with military aircraft.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior Pentagon officials on Wednesday during a trip to the Philippines to discuss the balloon incident.
Potential threat to American security
Military officials considered shooting the balloon down over Montana on Wednesday, but ultimately advised Biden not to because of the threat of debris falling on people, the official said.
Billings, Montana’s airport was closed while the military mobilized funds, including F-22 fighter jets, in case Biden orders the balloon shot down.
“We wanted to make sure we coordinated with civil authorities to clear the airspace around this potential area,” the official said.
“But even with the protective measures taken, our military commanders felt that we had not reduced the risk enough. That’s why we didn’t shoot.”
The official said the current flight path would allow the balloon to fly over several prominent objects, but did not name them. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana has 150 ICBM silos.
Officials declined to say how high the balloon flew, but acknowledged that the path of its flight was above civilian air traffic levels and below “outer space”.
US officials raised the issue in discussions with their Chinese counterparts through diplomatic channels in Beijing and Washington.
“We have informed them of the seriousness of our attitude towards this matter,” the official added.
Spy balloons have flown over the United States several times in recent years, the official said, but the balloon appeared to linger longer than on previous occasions, the official said.
“We believe this balloon has limited intelligence-gathering value, but we are still taking steps to protect our space from foreign intelligence gathering sensitive information,” the official said.