The Department of Defense is tracking a suspected high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon that appears to be collecting data on sensitive U.S. sites, multiple defense officials said Thursday.
President Joe Biden was briefed regarding the surveillance balloon and requested military options, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, after convening a meeting of senior leadership Wednesday, recommended against shooting it down to protect the safety of people on the ground, a senior defense official told reporters.
The balloon has a “limited value” to China for intelligence collection beyond the capabilities Beijing currently exercises but nevertheless presents concerns, officials said.
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“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said.
The U.S. government and military continue to “track and monitor it closely,” Ryder said. “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.”
The balloon transited over Montana Wednesday. Montana houses Malmstrom Air Force Base, where U.S. Minuteman III nuclear missiles are stored, according to the base’s website.
Washington has communicated to Beijing “the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the senior defense official said.
The surveillance technology carried by the balloon is not “revolutionary” but still presents concerns, the official said.
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“I think the thing that is different is the altitude and, of course, the willingness that put it in the continental United States for an extended period of time,” the official said.
Similar instances have occurred a “few” times in recent years, including under both the Biden and Trump administrations, the official said.
Intelligence officials have attributed many unidentified flying objects to Chinese surveillance efforts. Beijing can spy on U.S. military bases to observe the training tactics of U.S. pilots using surveillance drones in the past, The New York Times previously reported, citing Pentagon officials familiar with the contents of the classified document.
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