WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over the western part of the country for a few days, defense officials said on Thursday.
A senior defense official told reporters that the U.S. has “very high confidence” the object is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, The Associated Press reported. The balloon has been observed in the skies near Billings, Montana. The state is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, according to the news organization.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters, according to a Department of Defense statement. “We continue to track and monitor it closely.
Images of the balloon were captured by Billings videographer Chase Doak, according to the Billings Gazette.
“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Ryder said. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
Ryder added that U.S. military officials decided against shooting the balloon down, CNN reported. According to The Washington Post, shooting the balloon down was dismissed out of concern about what might happen to its debris.
“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Ryder told reporters.
An official did not say how large the balloon was, but said it was big enough to be noticed by commercial pilots despite its high altitude, the AP reported.
Pentagon leaders presented options to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, according to NBC News.
The balloon also flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana, the news outlet reported. A senior defense official said the balloon is still over the U.S. but declined to say where it is now.
A defense official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels, expressing the seriousness of the matter, the AP reported.
Thursday’s announcement comes on the eve of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected trip to China, according to the AP. The status of Blinken’s trip was unclear on Thursday, the news organization reported.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was traveling in the Philippines, convened a meeting of senior defense officials to discuss the issue on Wednesday, the Post reported.
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