A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over American airspace for a couple of days is currently being tracked by the US Department of Defense. The balloon was flying over sensitive sites, including one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields located in Montana.
The Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to concerns of hurting people on the ground. Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, provided a brief statement on the issue and said the balloon is “currently traveling at an altitude significantly higher than commercial air traffic and does not present a physical or military threat to those on the ground.”
A senior defense official said the United States has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels about the matter. While the object was flying over missile fields, it seems to have limited value in providing China with intelligence.
The same official also confirmed that the military had fighter jets, including F-22s, standing by to shoot down the balloon if such an operation was ordered.
The Pentagon ultimately recommended against doing this due to the potential risks to people in the area. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin advised against taking “kinetic action” due to safety concerns. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley, supported this stance.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation and accepted the recommendation. The incident has further strained US-China relations, which are already heightened due to numerous issues such as Taiwan, human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region, and the heavy-handed treatment of democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Senator Steve Daines of Montana sent a letter to Secretary Austin expressing concern about the balloon. He requested information about the flight path and inquired if any national security assets could be compromised.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to make his first trip to Beijing this weekend to resolve some of the current friction. However, it needs to be clarified if the discovery of the balloon will impact his travel plans.
The new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, might have added even more fuel to the fire. He tweeted, “China’s blatant disregard for U.S. sovereignty is an aggressive move that must be addressed.” Tensions between the United States and China are expected to remain high in the coming days.
Cover Image: Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP