Pentagon leaders have advised President Biden not to order the U.S. military to shoot down an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon that’s flying over the continental United States — but that position could change as the situations evolves, according to a senior Defense Department official.
The DOD has “very high confidence” that the recently spotted platform is a spy balloon from the People’s Republic of China, the official told reporters during a call on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
In a statement on Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat 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.”
He added: “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
The existence of the balloon was first reported by NBC News.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of military brass — including the head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command — on Wednesday to get their assessment, according to a senior Defense official.
“In this instance, President Biden was briefed and asked for military options. Secretary Austin convened senior DOD leadership yesterday even as he was on the road in the Philippines. There was a strong recommendation by the Chairman of Joint Chiefs Gen. [Mark] Milley and the commander of Northcom Gen. [Glen] VanHerck not to take kinetic action due to the risk to the safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field,” the official told reporters.
The official declined to disclose the size of the balloon.
“I’m not going to go into the exact dimensions [of it]. We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area. We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana, but we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down,” they said.
The platform has been monitored by multiple U.S. military assets and it will continue to be tracked. F-22 fighter jets were also previously mobilized as the situation evolved, according to the official.
“The intent of this balloon is for surveillance, and so the current flight path does carry it over a number of sensitive sites,” the official said.
China has other intelligence collection assets, such as satellites, that are also capable of spying on the U.S.
“Currently we assess that this balloon has limited added value from an intelligence collection perspective. But we are taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. We’re also tracking what abilities they could have in gaining insight and continue to monitor the balloon as it is over the continental United States,” the official said.
U.S. government personnel have been in contact with Chinese officials about the incident.
“We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland. So if the risk profile that I described earlier, if that changes, we will have options to deal with this balloon,” the senior Defense official said.
DefenseScoop asked the official if the Pentagon had a policy for engaging these types of systems.
“As it relates to do we have a policy — the answer is yes, we do. And most importantly, we also have sufficient authority given to us to take action under Title 10 against unmanned aerial systems, of which this balloon would be a part. So, we think we have all the authorities we need to do anything that we need to do to protect the American people, and we’ll continue to do that,” the official said.
This is not the first time that a Chinese balloon of this type has flown over the continental United States. It has happened “a handful of other times over the past few years,” including before the Biden administration took office, according to the official.
However, “it is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time this time around, more persistent than in previous instances. That would be one distinguishing factor,” the official said.
In their most recent review of U.S. military and government sightings of unidentified anomalous phenomena, officials confirmed that 163 reports were eventually characterized as balloon or balloon-like entities.
“I’m not going to go into the exact nature of the technology, [but] I don’t think that the payload on this [Chinese balloon] is — I wouldn’t characterize it as revolutionary,” the senior Defense official told DefenseScoop. “I think the thing that is different is the altitude, and of course, the willingness to put it over the continental United States for an extended period of time. I think that’s the biggest difference here.”
In a statement issued on Friday, a China Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed that the balloon belongs to China, but claimed that is is being used for “research” and “meteorological purposes.”
“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 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 spokesperson said in a statement posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s website.
Updated on Feb. 3, 2023: This story has been updated to include a statement from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson about the balloon.