Pentagon says it is monitoring Chinese spy balloon spotted flying over US

The Pentagon has said it is tracking a Chinese spy balloon flying over the United States but had decided against shooting it down for safety reasons.

Defence officials said the balloon has been watched for a couple days since it entered US airspace, flying at high altitude. It has been monitored by several methods including manned aircraft, and has most recently been tracked crossing over Montana, where the US has some of its silo-based nuclear missiles. As a precaution, flights out of Billings Logan airport were suspended on Wednesday.

“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,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

The Pentagon is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over US airspace
The Pentagon is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over US airspace. Photograph: Larry Mayer/AP

Pentagon officials said there was “high confidence” that it was Chinese, and that Joe Biden was briefed on the situation. The president asked for military options, but it was decided that there was too great a danger of debris harming people on the ground were it to be shot down.

Another factor in the decision was that, although it was flying over sensitive nuclear sites in Montana, it did not appear to be gathering any intelligence that could not be collected from satellites, so it was judged to be of little benefit to the Chinese.

The object first flew over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and through Canada before appearing over the city of Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, officials said.

Military experts say that use of high-altitude balloons is likely to increase over the coming years. They are much cheaper than spy satellites, are hard to spot by radar and difficult to shoot down, sometimes lingering for days after they have been punctured. They can “steer” by changing altitudes, using computers to calculate how to use winds going in different directions at different layers of the atmosphere. As well as surveillance, they could also carry bombs, in times of conflict.

In 2019, the US military used up to 25 experimental solar-powered high-altitude balloons to conduct wide-area surveillance tests across six midwestern states. The balloons were equipped with hi-tech radars designed to simultaneously track many individual vehicles day or night, through any kind of weather, and were intended to be used to monitor drug trafficking and potential homeland security threats.


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