The US is tracking a suspected Chinese reconnaissance balloon that has been in the sky in recent days flying over classified sites. It is steadily approaching the US Air Force base in Missouri, where the nuclear warheads are located.
On Wednesday, a mysterious object shut down flights in the western state of Montana. Representatives of the Ministry of Defense writes Air Force, said they are sure that the “high-altitude observation balloon” belongs to China. However, they decided not to shoot it down, fearing falling debris.
On Friday, Canada said it was monitoring a “potential second incident” with the observation balloon, but did not say which country could be behind it. The statement said they are working closely with the US to “protect Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats.”
Officials say the object flew over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and Canada before reappearing in Montana over Billings on Wednesday. On condition of anonymity, a senior Defense Department official said the government had prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, in case the White House ordered the target to be shot down.
On Wednesday, to assess the threat, a meeting was held between senior military leaders, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Montana is home to one of three missile launchers in the country, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, and officials said the spy balloon flew over classified sites to gather information. However, they recommended that “kinetic action” not be taken against it due to the danger the falling debris could pose to people on the ground.
A spokesman for the Department of Defense said that there was no “significantly increased threat” of compromising American intelligence, since American officials “know exactly where this balloon is located and exactly where it flies.” There was also no threat to civil aviation, as the balloon was “significantly” above the altitude used by commercial airlines. He also noted that the balloon is unlikely to provide more information than what China can collect using satellites.
The US raised the issue with Chinese officials at their embassies in Washington and Beijing. During a briefing Thursday, officials at the Pentagon declined to reveal the facility’s current location. They also declined to provide more details about him, including his size. An unnamed Defense Department spokesman said:
There were reports that pilots saw this thing, although it was quite high in the sky. So you know they are significant.
The briefing noted that such observation balloons have been tracked for the past few years, but “it looks like it’s hovering for a longer period of time this time.”
Chase Doak, a member of the Billings office, told the Associated Press that he noticed “a big white circle in the sky” and went home to get a better camera:
“I thought maybe this is a real UFO. So I wanted to make sure I documented it and took as many photos as possible.”
Chinese state media did not report on the incident, which is widely discussed on Chinese social media: “We have so many satellites, why do we need a balloon.”
The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Marco Rubio, criticized China’s alleged balloon, tweeting:
“The level of espionage directed against our country by Beijing has increased dramatically over the past 5 years, has become more intense and brazen.”
CIA chief William Burns, speaking at an event in Washington on Thursday, made no mention of the balloon but called China “the biggest geopolitical challenge” the US is currently facing.
The alleged spy ship is likely to escalate tensions ahead of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to China next week. This will be the first visit to the country by a Biden administration secretary. A senior US diplomat is going to Beijing for talks on a wide range of issues, including security, Taiwan and Covid-19. He also plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to the Financial Times.
The US State Department, however, announced a decision to postpone a planned trip by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to China due to an incident with a balloon that was believed to be launched for reconnaissance purposes:
“We have taken note of the PRC’s statement in which they expressed their regret, but the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of sovereignty and international law. And that this happened is unacceptable.”
Balloons are one of the oldest surveillance technologies. Compared to other airspace surveillance devices, they can be operated cheaply without personnel, remaining in the air for long periods of time.
According to Pentagon spokesman General Pat Ryder, the balloon does not pose a military or physical threat to people: “The balloon continues to move east and is currently over the center of the continental United States.”
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