Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder announced on Thursday that the military observed “a high altitude surveillance balloon” traveling above the nation this week. Blinken delayed the previously scheduled trip hours before he was scheduled to depart, an official told ABC News. Neither country had released details on the agenda for the diplomatic mission.
Ryder said that the United States continues to “track and monitor” the balloon closely and “acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information” once the object was detected. The balloon was spotted above Billings, Montana, after it traveled above the Aleutian Islands and through Canada. A top defense official said the device is still over the country as of Thursday afternoon but did not disclose its position, according to a report from NBC.
“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,” Ryder continued. “Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years.”
Montana is the location of several military bases and missile silos. Federal officials previously investigated Chinese technology company Huawei over concerns that cell towers in the area using the firm’s devices are transmitting data to the communist nation.
After the balloon was detected, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and Vice Chair Joint Chief General Christopher Grady recommended that no “kinetic action” be taken because of possible falling debris. A senior defense official confirmed during a background press briefing that the United States had preemptively scrambled F-22 fighter jets as the Billings Logan International Airport issued a ground stop.
“The context for that was it would put some things on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana,” the official said. “So we wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the air space around that potential area. 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 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the balloon was merely a civilian research vessel that had blown off course. “The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” officials remarked. “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) said in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the incident creates “significant concern” that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile fields were targeted for an “intelligence gathering mission.” He called for a full security briefing to discuss the incident.
“I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana,” he wrote. “There is no higher priority for your administration than the safety and security of the American people and it is imperative that your administration reassure them of that fact at this time.”