The U.S. military has been monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the northern U.S. for the past few days, and military and defense leaders have discussed shooting it out of the sky, according to two U.S. officials and a senior defense official.
“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 NBC News. “We continue to track and monitor it closely.”
“Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Ryder said.
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The high-altitude balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. It flew over Alaska's Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana. A senior defense official said the balloon is still over the U.S. but declined to say where it is now.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck, and other combatant commanders.
Austin was traveling in the Philippines at the time.
The leaders reviewed the threat profile of the Chinese stratospheric balloon and possible response options, and ultimately decided not to recommend taking it out kinetically, because of the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field. Pentagon leaders presented the options to President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
A senior administration official confirmed that Biden had been briefed and received a “strong recommendation” that the balloon not be shot down.
“Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration,” said the senior administration official. “We acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
On Friday, asked why the U.S. did not shoot down the balloon, Ryder said that after assessing options and considering the "potential for debris and property damage" to people and structures on the ground, the U.S. decided it did not pose that risk if allowed to continue flying.
Ryder also said that he was not able to provide information about "past incidents" other than to say they had occurred because "that information is classified."
The U.S. has communicated to the Chinese government “through multiple channels both here in D.C. and in Beijing, said the senior defense official.
China says it's a weather balloon
On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Beijing was assessing the situation and that speculation and hype were unhelpful while facts were still being clarified.
“China is a responsible country that always abides by international law and has no intention of infringing on any country’s territory and airspace,” said a spokesperson at a daily briefing. “We hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully."
Later Friday, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the the balloon was Chinese but said it was a weather balloon that had “deviated far from its planned course.”
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” said the spokesperson. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”
Pentagon spokesperson Ryder pushed back on this assertion, saying the U.S. is confident the balloon is for surveillance. He said it continues to move eastward at an altitude of about 60,000 feet and has the ability to maneuver.
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The senior U.S. defense official said the balloon does not pose a threat to civil aviation because of its altitude.
The senior U.S. defense official said that the U.S. assessed the balloon "has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective over and above what the PRC can do through other means.”
“Nevertheless we are taking all necessary steps to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”
The official said the U.S. military will continue to monitor it closely and will keep the option of taking out the balloon on the table.
“We are tracking it in minute detail in real time and we will constantly update our assessment,” the official said. “We are in constant surveillance of this thing through a bunch of different means.”
Staffers for the congressional “Gang of Eight" — the party leaders and the top Republicans and Democrats on the intelligence committees — received a classified briefing on the balloon on Thursday afternoon, three sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.
The office of Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said he is expected to receive a classified briefing next week.
The senior defense official said there was a window while the balloon was over Montana Wednesday when they could have taken it down. NORAD sent aircraft — including F-22 Raptors from Nellis Air Force Base and airborne early warning aircraft known as AWACs — but the official would not say whether one of the options was to shoot the balloon out of the sky with a U.S. aircraft.
The U.S. military flights prompted a ground stop at the airport in Billings, with air traffic controllers citing a “special military mission.”
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This type of activity is not unprecedented, the senior defense official said, with China flying stratospheric balloons like this before, but the difference this time is the balloon is staying over the U.S. longer than usual.
The stratosphere starts between 4 and 12 miles above the Earth’s surface and extends around 31 miles, according to the National Weather Service.
Tensions are high between the U.S. and China.
On Thursday, the Pentagon announced it would bolster the U.S. military presence near Taiwan, with plans to expand the number of U.S. military personnel in the Philippines. Announced during Austin’s visit to Manila, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) designates four more bases where U.S. military personnel can now base in strategic areas of the country, adding to the five already authorized to house American troops.
“We’re not seeking permanent basing in the Philippines,” Austin said during a news conference Thursday.