US: China Has a Spy Balloon Over Montana

Biden, Pentagon debate shooting it down
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 2, 2023 6:20 PM CST
US Weighs Shooting Down Spy Balloon Sent by China
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. The Pentagon would not confirm that this is the Chinese surveillance balloon the US is tracking.   (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

The Pentagon said Thursday it's tracking a surveillance balloon sent by China that's crossing the northern US—bringing another increase in tensions between the two nations. The balloon, described as about the size of three buses, was spotted over Montana on Thursday, ABC News reports, and officials said it made a ground stop in Billings on Wednesday. There's been an internal debate about whether to shoot the balloon down, with President Biden in favor and Defense Department officials worrying that might cause injuries to people on the ground. NORAD sent F-22 Raptors to the area in case they were needed, per NBC News.

It's one of China's most aggressive moves to gather intelligence in years, per the Wall Street Journal. The balloon was first spotted by people on a commercial airliner. "Once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information," said Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman. Defense officials said they're not concerned about spying because they know what the balloon is over, though one of them said it's hovered above sensitive sites. Because it's at such a high altitude, officials said, the balloon poses no danger to planes, per the BBC.

Similar balloons have been identified over the US in recent years, a Pentagon official said, though this one "is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time." People in Montana posted photos of a pale, round object in the sky and reported seeing US military planes over the area as well, apparently monitoring the balloon. Montana has several nuclear missile silos, per the Washington Post. American officials said they've brought up the matter to officials in Beijing as well as at the Chinese embassy in Washington. (More US-China relations stories.)

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