Defense officials monitoring a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon lingering and collecting intelligence over the United States said they considered shooting it down over rural Montana but determined that the risk of injuries or damage on the ground was too great.
“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 Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement this evening. “The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely. 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.”
“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” Ryder added. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
A senior Defense official then told reporters on a call this evening that they “are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the PRC.” The official would not elaborate on how this was determined but stressed that the U.S. has “very high confidence” in its origin.
President Biden was briefed about the surveillance balloon “and asked for military options,” the official said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened senior DoD leadership yesterday and “it was the strong recommendation by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, and the commander of NORTHCOM, General VanHerck, not to take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.”
“Currently we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” the official continued. “But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. We are also tracking what abilities it could have in gaining insights, and continue to monitor the balloon as it is over the continental United States.”
The official did not reveal the dimensions of the balloon other than “it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area” and that pilots had seen the “sizable” object despite its higher altitude.
“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana,” the official added. “But we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday.”
The U.S. has been tracking the balloon “for some time” and has “had custody of it the entire time it has been over U.S. airspace, entered the continental United States airspace a couple of days ago,” the official said, adding that since it is engaged in intelligence collection “the current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites.” However, the surveillance capability — with a payload described as not “revolutionary” — is not believed to exceed China’s current collection abilities via means such as low-Earth-orbit satellites.
“But out of an abundance of caution, we have taken additional mitigation steps,” the official added. “I’m not going to go into what those are. But we know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over. And we are taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk.”
Though this type of balloon has crossed over the continental United States “a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration, it is appearing to hang out for a long period of time this time around, more persistent than in previous instances.” The U.S. has assessed that the balloon does not pose a threat to people or civilian aviation, as the altitude was described as “significantly above” air traffic routes — “in the atmosphere” but “not in outer space.”
“We have engaged PRC officials with urgency through multiple channels. They’ve been engaged both through their embassy here in Washington and through our embassy in Beijing,” the Defense official said. “We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue. But beyond that I’m not going to go into the content of the message. But we have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland. And so if the risk profile that I described earlier, if that changes we will have options to deal with this balloon.”
“I don’t know why they did what they did,” the official later added when asked about China’s actions. “I will say that the past number of times it did not loiter over the continental United States for an extended period of time. It’s different.”