The Department of Defense is tracking a suspected high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon that appears to be collecting data on sensitive U.S. sites, multiple defense officials said Thursday.
President Joe Biden was briefed regarding the surveillance balloon and requested military options, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin after convening a meeting of senior leadership Wednesday recommended against shooting it down to protect the safety of people on the ground, a senior defense official told reporters. The balloon has a “limited value” to China for intelligence collection beyond the capabilities Beijing currently exercises, but nevertheless presents concerns, officials said.
“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,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said.
The U.S. government and military continues to “track and monitor it closely,” Ryder said. “The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
The balloon transited over Montana Wednesday. The state houses Malmstrom Air Force Base, where U.S. Minuteman III nuclear missiles are stored, according to the base’s website.
North American Aerospace Defensive Command (NORAD) scrambled aircraft, including F-22 Raptors and early warning aircraft, from Nellis Air Force Base when the balloon flew over a remote area of Montana, NBC News first reported. The Billings airport conducted a ground stop, citing a “special military mission,” which was later lifted, according to the defense official.
“The current flight path does carry over a number of sensitive sites,” the senior defense official said. However, the surveillance technology carried by the balloon is not “revolutionary.”
Similar instances have occurred a “few” times in recent years, including under both the Biden and Trump administrations, the official said. “I think the thing that is different is the altitude and of course, the willingness that put it in the continental United States for an extended period of time,” he added.
Washington has communicated to Beijing “the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the senior defense official said.
Intelligence officials have attributed many unidentified flying objects reported in recent years to Chinese surveillance efforts. Beijing can spy on U.S. military bases to observe the training tactics of U.S. pilots using surveillance drones in the past, The New York Times previously reported, citing Pentagon officials familiar with the contents of the classified document.
The spy balloon’s discovery comes amid heightening concerns over Beijing’s efforts to monitor activities of the U.S. armed forces. In November, the Federal Communications Commission banned on new imports of Chinese-owned telecommunications equipment, including the equipment suspected of surveilling sensitive U.S. military sites.
The Chinese Embassy to the U.S. did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.
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