Pentagon says China balloon has ability to maneuver and ‘changed course’ as it moves east over US

A Chinese surveillance balloon has “changed course” and will remain over United States airspace for the next few days, the Pentagon said on Friday.

The aircraft, which was spotted at high-altitude over the western US near sensitive military sites on Wednesday and has been tracked by the US military since then, has the ability to maneuver and is currently heading east, Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said during a briefing.

“While we won’t get into specifics in regards to the exact location, I can tell you that the balloon continues to move eastward and is currently over the center of the continental United States,” he said. “We currently assess that the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time, and will continue to monitor and review options.”

The discovery of the balloon over Montana on Wednesday prompted the US military to scramble jets and led to the cancellation of a high-profile visit to China by US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday that the aircraft was a “civilian airship” that had blown off course due to wind.

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement, using a legal term used to describe events beyond one’s control.

It added that the airship was being used for “research, mainly meteorological purposes” and had “limited steering capabilities.”

A senior US defence official told reporters in a briefing on Thursday that the Pentagon had “very high confidence” the object was a high-altitude balloon conducting surveillance near “sensitive military sites,” the Associated Press reported.

The balloon was spotted by residents of Billings, Montana, a little over 200 miles from a nuclear missile silo field at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The official said President Joe Biden had been presented with options to shoot down the aircraft, but that he decided against the measure because of the danger to civilians on the ground caused by falling debris.