() — The federal government is monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the United States for a couple days.
“The balloon is over the continental United States right now. The U.S. government, including (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), continues to monitor it closely. The balloon is currently traveling well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement.
“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the U.S. took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.
A senior Defense Department official said there is “very high confidence” the balloon is owned and operated by the Chinese government, but did not say how they know.
One of the places the balloon was spotted was in Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. There was a window of opportunity to shoot the balloon down Wednesday, NBC news reported, and military flights prompted a ground stop at the airport in Billings.
The senior defense official said the U.S. did get fighter jets, including F-22s, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered to by the White House. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.
“Right now … the U.S. position is to allow the balloon to continue to float above the United States, rather than attempt to shoot it down,” the Defense Department said in its statement.
While Pentagon officials said it is not unprecedented for these types of surveillance aircraft to be identified in the United States, this one has been hovering for longer than usual. It came over continental U.S. airspace a few days ago, the Pentagon said.
“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective,” the official said. “But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”
A DOD official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
The Pentagon announcement comes days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China. It’s not clear if this will affect his travel plans, which the State Department has not formally announced.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.