Chinese spy balloon causing consternation among US officials

Chinese spy balloon floating over the US has officials in an uproar despite well-documented American satellite and spy plane activity.

Chinese spy balloon floating over the US has officials in an uproar despite well-documented American satellite and spy plane activity.

A mysterious balloon spotted flying over the U.S. this week, was raising concerns about whether another country was using the device to spy on America.

The balloon – which is the size of three buses – was identified as belonging to China and the US government is tracking the high-altitude surveillance aircraft as it is over the continental United States right now.

The Chinese government said the balloon mistakenly flew off course while collecting weather-related data but Pentagon officials say it violates U.S. airspace and international law.

The U.S. government, including NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely, according to the Pentagon. Fighter jets were mobilized, but military leaders advised President Joe Biden against shooting the balloon out of the sky because falling debris would pose a safety threat.

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. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.

Congressman Matt Rosendale sent a letter to U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin demanding a briefing on the Chinese balloon, expressing particular concern about surveillance of Malmstrom Air Force Base in his Montana district, which operates, maintains, and secures Minuteman III ICBMs.

“This incident is only the most recent example of China’s brazen espionage attempt – it is abundantly clear that the Chinese Communist Party is engaging in a multilayered approach to spy on Americans,” said Rosendale’s letter. “The Biden administration must do more to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from targeting Americans.”

New Jersey Republican Congressman Chris Smith released a statement referring to the “Chinese Communist Party spy balloon” and calling it “a serious national security incursion that must have decisive consequences.”

Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.

As of noon today, the maneuverable Chinese surveillance balloon, which was over Montana yesterday, was at an altitude of about 60,000 feet and floating over the center of the continental United States in an easterly direction, posing no risk to commercial aviation, military assets or people on the ground, said Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.

“This balloon should have never been allowed to enter U.S. airspace,” said Congressman Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Instead, the Biden administration allowed it to continue so that it now poses a direct and ongoing national security threat to the U.S. homeland, while at the same time threatening the privacy of every American.”

The North American Aerospace Defense Command is continuing to monitor and leaders are reviewing options, said Ryder, who held a media briefing today. 

“The balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable,” he said, adding that the U.S. has communicated that to Chinese leaders at multiple levels. 

The balloon is carrying surveillance gear as well as a payload, Ryder said, not elaborating about the payload. 

A reason not to shoot it down at this point, he said, is that besides not posing a threat to people or aircraft, the resulting debris from a strike of this large balloon could be harmful to people on the ground and result in property damage. 

The balloon most likely will continue floating over the U.S. for the next few days and updates will be provided as needed, he said. 

“Once the balloon was detected, we acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” he added.

A number of Republicans have criticized Biden for not shooting down the balloon, calling it a moment of weakness for the administration.

The White House said the balloon was not shot down due to the risk to people on the ground. Officials determined that the potential damage of falling debris outweighed the risk of the balloon itself, which they said does not have the ability to bring in more intelligence than spy satellites in low Earth orbit.

“So the first question is, does it pose a threat, a physical kinetic threat, to individuals in the United States in the US homeland? Our assessment is it does not,” said a senior defense official. “Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not. So given that profile, we assess the risk of downing it, even if the probability is low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting someone or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit Beijing next week but postponed his travel plans after the balloon was spotted. Tensions have been high between the two nations due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan, and the Russia-Ukraine War.

Blinken has said China’s decision to fly a spy balloon over the US is “unacceptable and irresponsible” after China expressed regret, saying it was a weather airship that had been blown astray into American airspace.

In April 2001, a U.S. Navy spy plane flying a routine reconnaissance mission over the South China Sea was struck by a People’s Liberation Army fighter jet that veered aggressively close.

The mid-air collision killed the Chinese pilot, crippled the U.S. plane, and forced it to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield, touching off a tense international showdown for nearly two weeks while China refused to release the two-dozen American crew members and damaged aircraft.

Ryder said the balloon is well above commercial air traffic and doesn’t pose a threat to civil aviation. He also said this isn’t the first time such a balloon has been seen over the United States. 

After the balloon was detected, Ryder said, the U.S. government “acted immediately” to protect against the collection of sensitive information, though he didn’t detail what measures were taken. 

A senior defense official who participated in the briefing on background only said the U.S. intelligence community has “very high confidence” the balloon belongs to the People’s Republic of China, and that the United States has engaged with Chinese officials “with urgency, through multiple channels” regarding the presence of the balloon. 

“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the official said. “We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.” 

Right now, the official said, following recommendations of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley and Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, 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 official said the risk of using kinetic force to take the balloon out of the sky might put civilian communities at risk, and that the threat the balloon poses now to both safety and U.S. intelligence doesn’t justify such an action. 

“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.” 

The official said this is not the first time such a balloon has been seen above the United States, but did say this time the balloon appears to be acting differently than what has been seen in the past. 

“It’s happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration,” the official said. “It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around, [and is] more persistent than in previous instances. That would be one distinguishing factor.” 

While the senior defense official would not say how large the balloon is, the official did say its size did figure into the calculation to not use kinetic force to take it out of the sky. 

“We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” the official said. “I can’t really go into the dimension — but there have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it’s pretty high up in the sky. So … it’s sizable.” 

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