The US is monitoring a surveillance balloon spotted over Montana.
On Thursday (Feb. 2), Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said the military “has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now.” The Canadian Armed Forces confirmed that they, too, detected the balloon and are keeping track of it.
Ryder clarified that the balloon did not present “a military or physical threat” to people on the ground or in the air—it was traveling “well above commercial air traffic.” The Canadian Army’s statement also reiterated that “Canadians are safe.”
Few details about the size of the spy balloon were released, but Montana-based office worker Chase Doak told the Associated Press news agency that he noticed a “big white circle in the sky” that was too small to be the moon. “I thought maybe it was a legitimate UFO,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure I documented it and took as many photos as I could.”
The US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, a senior defense official told Pentagon reporters at a background briefing.
The Pentagon did not shoot it down to avoid harming people on the ground with debris, but the official said the US had F-22s and other fighter jets were ready to do so if the White House ordered it.
Once the balloon was detected, the Pentagon said it acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information. It assessed that the balloon was unlikely to be gathering any more intelligence than what China could already access by other means, such as satellites.
But the military’s reassurances did not calm everyone’s nerves. Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida called the incident “alarming but not surprising,” noting “level of espionage aimed at our country by Beijing has grown dramatically more intense & brazen over the last 5 years.”
Montana is home to some of the US’s nuclear arsenal. Montana governor Greg Gianforte said he was “deeply troubled” by this incident, among other things. Republican senator Steve Daines of Montana sought a “full briefing” on the matter from the US secretary of defense.
“The fact that this balloon was occupying Montana airspace creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base (AFB) and the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fields are the target of this intelligence gathering mission...It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised U.S. national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the U.S. that this spyballoon was utilizing. As you know, Montana plays a vital national security role by housing nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom AFB. Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana.” -US Senator Steve Daines’ letter to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Beijing is working verify the reports, adding that “until the facts are clear, making conjectures and hyping up the issue will not help to properly resolve it.”
US-China relations have already been strained for years. Recently, more so with the US touting TikTok as a national security threat and beefing up military presence in support of Taiwan, among other things. While China dismisses its “paranoia,” its veiled support for Russia is also irking the US.
Now, the balloon incident weighs heavy.
While there’s been no official word from the White House on the matter, the impact of this discovery may put Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s upcoming Beijing visit from Feb. 5-6.—the first by a senior US official since China reversed its zero-Covid policy—in a lurch. If Blinken makes it still, he’s supposed to sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping.