Fighter jets were mobilized but military leaders advised President Joe Biden against shooting the balloon out of the sky for fear debris could pose a safety threat.
Fighter jets were mobilized but military leaders advised President Joe Biden against shooting the balloon out of the sky for fear debris could pose a safety threat, advice Biden accepted. When the balloon entered U.S. airspace the military aircraft started observing it.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States right now. The balloon currently travels at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said.
One U.S. official said the balloon was assessed to have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”
U.S. military leaders considered shooting down the balloon over Montana but eventually advised Biden against it because of the safety risk from debris.
“We wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty the airspace around that potential area. But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn’t drive the risk down low enough. So we didn’t take the shot,” the official said.
According to estimates by the military, the current flight path would carry the balloon over several sensitive sites but no further details were provided. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
Separately, Canada’s Defence Ministry said a “high-altitude surveillance balloon” was detected and that it was monitoring a “potential second incident”, without giving further details, adding that it was in frequent contact with the United States.
U.S. officials said they raised the matter with their Chinese counterparts through diplomatic channels.
“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” a U.S. official said.
Blinken is expected to travel to China next week for a visit agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was not clear how the discovery of the spy balloon might affect those plans, with Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for Blinken to cancel his trip.
Relations between China and the United States have soured in recent years, particularly following then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.
Since then, Washington and Beijing have sought to communicate more frequently and prevent ties from worsening.