Giant ‘Chinese spy balloon’ discovered hovering high above northern US

Giant ‘Chinese spy balloon’ discovered hovering high above northern US

A massive surveillance balloon has been spotted hovering over the northern US, a Pentagon official said on Thursday.

Officials considered shooting down the craft, described by one US official as the size of three buses, while it flew over Montana on Wednesday, before that option was ruled out over conerns about debris.

“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 Brig Gen Pat Ryder told NBC News. “We continue to track and monitor it closely.”

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

The craft journeyed over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, then into Montana, according to NBC.

“Why not shoot it down? We have to do the risk-reward here,” a US defence official told CNN. “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. 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.”

The craft’s precise current whereabouts are unknown.

Its route would take it over the Montana headquarters of the 41st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, which operates and maintains intercontinental ballistic missiles, the New York Times reports.

“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective. But we are taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information,” a US official told ABC News.

Officials said the balloon has been in US air space for a few days, and the military believes with “very high confidence” the high-altitude craft is of Chinese origin.

“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the [People’s Republic of China],” a senior defence official said on Thursday, CNN reports. “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”

A senior US official told the network the balloon “does not present a military or physical threat to people on ground.”

China reacted to reports of the balloon on Friday, saying it is looking into those reports and urging officials in Washington to remain calm as Beijing had “no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country”.

“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.

“Speculation and hype are not conducive until the facts are clear.”

Without denying the reports, the spokesperson added: “As for the balloon, as I’ve mentioned just now, we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully.”

The top official also said politicians and the public should withhold judgement “before we have a clear understanding of the facts” about the spy balloon sightings.

“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry told The Independent in a statement. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.

The balloon was reportedly seen in the skies above Billings, Montana, and appeared to have an all-white, circular design.

Flights were temporarily shut down within a 50-mile radius of Billings on Wednesday, the Billings Gazette reports.

Fighter jets and aerial refuelling tankers were scrambled to the area, according to the paper, citing unnamed sources.

Unverified videos on social media appeared to show the craft glinting in the sky.

President Joe Biden met with senior military leaders on Wednesday to discuss options to respond to the suspected surveillance flight, NBC News reports.

The arrival of the Chinese balloon may heighten tensions ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming visit to China, the first such high-level visit by a US secretary of state in six years.

North American Aerospace Defense Command continues to monitor the balloon.