A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down. Credit - Larry Mayer-The Billings Gazette/AP
The U.S. military has identified a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying high above the northern part of the continental United States in recent days, which prompted President Joe Biden to ask for military options against it, according to senior defense officials.
"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 Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in a statement. "The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."
Biden was briefed on the matter Wednesday when he asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to develop options against the large slow-moving balloon, according to a senior U.S. official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The Pentagon had considered scrambling fighter jets to shoot it down as it traveled over Montana but determined not to do so out of fears such an act create a debris field and endanger Americans on the ground, the official said.
U.S. military worked with the civil aviation authorities to put a halt on flights coming in and out of the city of Billings in southern Montana, the official said, and even mobilized F-22 stealth fighter jets, which are the Air Force's premier air-to-air combat aircraft.
"We put some things on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana," the official said. "We wanted to make sure…to empty out the airspace around that potential area. But even with those protective measures taken-and it was the judgment of our military commanders-that didn't drive the risk down low enough, so we didn't take the shot."
The official wouldn't say how big the balloon was or high it was flying but simply said that it "is significantly above where civilian air traffic is active," which is why it's not believed to pose a threat to civilian aviation.
The Biden Administration has determined that the balloon doesn't give China any additional surveillance capabilities beyond what it already can collect through spy satellites currently orbiting the Earth, the official said.
When the balloon was detected by U.S. intelligence, the official said the military acted swiftly to guard against the Chinese collecting sensitive information. "The current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites," the official told reporters. "Out of an abundance of caution, we have taken additional mitigation steps." The official wouldn't detail what those actions were.
Montana is one of five states that host the U.S. military's land-based, nuclear-tipped Minuteman III missile fields.
In recent years, "a handful" of surveillance balloons have been spotted, but this one "is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time," the official said.