US scrambles F-22s following reports of unidentified flying object over Montana believed to be a Chinese spy balloon
The US is tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon first spotted over Montana, per NBC News.
The balloon has been hovering over the US "for the past few days," NBC reported Thursday.
"We continue to track and monitor it closely," a Pentagon spokesperson said.
The US military is tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon after a bright, unidentified flying object was spotted in the skies of Montana, a senior defense official told reporters on Thursday, confirming a report published by NBC News.
Video published by an NBC affiliate in Billings, Montana, shows a bright, unidentified object in the sky, which prompted flights to be diverted from the local airport on Wednesday.
A senior US defense official, speaking to reporters on Thursday, said that the US considered shooting down the balloon on Wednesday but decided it was not worth the potential risk of debris falling on people and property below.
"Clearly, the intent of the balloon is first surveillance, and so the current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites," the official said. However, the US has assessed "it does not create significant value-added over and above what the [People's Republic of China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites in low-Earth orbit. But out of an abundance of caution we have taken additional mitigation steps."
The official said there was "very high confidence" that the balloon was Chinese but did not elaborate on how that assessment was made, saying only that it was "shared across our intelligence and analytic community."
According to NBC, it is believed to have flown over a chain of volcanic islands off the coast of Russia and Alaska, making its way across Canada and reaching Montana on Wednesday.
"It is not the first time that you've had a balloon of this nature cross over the continental United States," the official said. "It's happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration. It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time this time around, more persistent than in previous instances, so that would be one distinguishing factor."
There are several potential surveillance targets in the area where the balloon was spotted, including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which is just one of three such bases in the US home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, a strategic nuclear weapon. US Space Command's Missile Warning Center is also located in neighboring Colorado.
After the balloon was spotted, the US military responded by scrambling F-22 Raptors and other aircraft near Billings, prompting the civilian airport to be shuttered for some time. "But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn't drive the risk down low enough, so we didn't take the shot," the US official said.
The official said the US had contacted the Chinese government through China's embassy in Washington DC and through the US Embassy in Beijing but did not describe the message that was relayed. "We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland," the official said Thursday, adding that if the US's risk assessment changes, "we will have options to deal with this balloon."
Stratospheric balloons are capable of taking high-resolution photographs and potentially intercepting electronic communications for a fraction of the cost of launching a satellite. Last summer, Politico reported that the US was itself developing plans to deploy its own high-altitude balloons to, among other things, track the deployment of hypersonic missiles in China and Russia.
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