- The official said that the balloon's current flight path would take it over a number of sensitive sites, but he didn't say which ones.
- Most of the time, these balloons fly between 80,000 and 120,000 feet (24,000 to 37,000 m), which is much higher than where commercial air traffic flies.
U.S. officials said Thursday that a Chinese spy balloon has been flying over the U.S. for a few days. This would be a bold move just days before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken goes to Beijing.
Fighter jets were sent, but military leaders told President Joe Biden not to shoot the balloon out of the sky because they were worried that pieces of the balloon could fall and hurt people. Biden took this advice, U.S. officials said.
When the balloon flew into U.S. airspace, the U.S. took “custody” of it and watched it with piloted military planes, one of the officials told reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Separately, Canada’s defence ministry said it had found a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” and was keeping an eye on a “potential second incident,” but it didn’t give any more information. It also said it was in regular contact with the U.S.
When the news first came out, CIA Director William Burns was giving a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, where he called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” the U.S. faces right now.
Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the Pentagon, told reporters, “The US government has found and is following a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental US right now.”
“The balloon is currently flying at a height well above commercial air traffic. It does not pose a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
When Reuters asked the Chinese foreign ministry for a comment, they did not answer right away.
Officials from the United States said that they talked to their Chinese counterparts about the issue. “We told them how seriously we take this issue,” a U.S. official said.
One U.S. official said that the balloon had “limited value from the point of view of gathering intelligence.”
Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in November that Blinken would go to China the following week. It wasn’t clear how finding the spy balloon would change these plans.
The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, said the spy balloon was scary but not a big surprise.
“Beijing’s spying on our country has gotten a lot worse and more brazen in the last five years,” Rubio said on Twitter.
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, asked Blinken to call off his trip.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House, said that he would ask for a “Gang of Eight” briefing. This is a secret national security briefing for congressional leaders and the Republican and Democratic heads of the intelligence committees.
In recent years, relations between China and the U.S. have gotten worse, especially after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August, which led China to hold dramatic military drills near the self-ruled island.
Since then, Washington and Beijing have tried to talk to each other more often and keep their relationship from getting worse.
POTENTIAL SAFETY RISK
Wednesday, U.S. military leaders thought about shooting down the balloon over Montana, but in the end, they told Biden not to do it because debris could hurt people.
Billings, Montana’s airport put out a ground stop while the military got ready to use F-22 fighter jets to shoot down the balloon if Biden said to.
The official said, “We wanted to make sure we worked with civil authorities to clear the airspace around that possible area.”
“But even though we took these precautions, our military leaders thought that we didn’t get the risk down low enough. So we didn’t go for it.”
Chase Noak from Billings took a video of the balloon on February 1. At first, he thought it was a star.
“But I thought that was weird because it was daytime and when I looked at it, it was too big to be a star,” he told Reuters.
The official said that the balloon’s current flight path would take it over a number of sensitive sites, but he didn’t say which ones. There are 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
A different U.S. official said that the spy balloon was followed near the Aleutian Islands and Canada before it came to the U.S.
Most of the time, these balloons fly between 80,000 and 120,000 feet (24,000 to 37,000 m), which is much higher than where commercial air traffic flies. Most of the time, the best fighter planes don’t fly higher than 65,000 feet. However, spy planes like the U-2 can fly as high as 80,000 feet or higher.
Craig Singleton, an expert on China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the US and the USSR used these kinds of balloons a lot during the Cold War because they are a cheap way to gather intelligence.
Spy balloons have flown over the United States several times in the past few years, but one U.S. official said that this balloon seemed to be there longer than the others.