The Pentagon is tracking what it described as a Chinese surveillance balloon passing over sensitive sites in the US, defence officials said on Thursday.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said.
A senior US defence official said Washington was “confident that this high altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the PRC”, using an abbreviation for China.
The discovery of the balloon comes at a point of high tensions between the US and China and just days before secretary of state Antony Blinken will meet President Xi Jinping in the first visit to China by a Biden administration cabinet secretary.
Officials said the balloon was attempting to monitor strategically important areas, including in Montana, where the US houses siloed nuclear weapons. It was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday.
“The current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites,” the senior defence official said.
The US had been tracking the balloon “for some time”, including using manned aircraft. It entered continental US airspace “a couple of days ago”, the senior defence official said.
The Pentagon assesses that the balloon is travelling “well above commercial air traffic” and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground, Ryder said.
After the US detected the balloon it took immediate steps to protect against the collection of important information, the defence official said. The official added the surveillance balloon “does not create significant” opportunities for China to gather intelligence beyond other methods such as low orbit satellites.
The US has observed similar activity over the past several years, including during the administration of Donald Trump. Unlike previous years the balloon “is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time this time around”, the defence official said.
President Joe Biden asked his advisers for military options, the official said. The US had been considering shooting the balloon down over a sparsely populated area in Montana, but decided against it. On Wednesday, aeroplane traffic was temporarily stopped in a 50-mile radius over the Billings airport in case Biden made the decision to shoot the balloon down.
Defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who was travelling in the Philippines at the time, convened senior Pentagon officials on Wednesday. They recommended against shooting the balloon down due to the risk debris from it could pose to people on the ground.
Officials said the limited intelligence gathering capabilities of the balloon coupled with the fact it does not pose a risk to civilians meant it was not worth endangering people on the ground.