Defense Officials said Thursday they were tracking a Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental U.S.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the government had been tracking the balloon for several days over the northern United States at an altitude “well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
The Pentagon decided not to shoot down the balloon, which was potentially flying over sensitive sites, because of possibly injuring people on the ground.
China said Friday that it would look into the U.S. reports, as the discovery further strained already tense relations between Beijing and Washington.
The balloon was spotted just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to travel to Beijing, to follow up on meetings President Biden had with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali late last year.
“Beijing is probably trying to signal to Washington: ‘While we want to improve ties, we are also ever ready for sustained competition, using any means necessary’, without severely inflaming tensions,” independent air-power analyst He Yuan Ming told the BBC. “And what better tool for this than a seemingly innocuous balloon.”
Meanwhile, Josh Lipsky, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, told CNN it is clear the U.S. wanted to make China aware that it knew about the balloon before Blinken arrived.
“It sets the state for [an] extraordinary tense meeting between Blinken and Qin Gang,” Lipsky said, referring to the Chinese foreign minister. “It puts Chinese officials on the backfoot heading into the meetings.”
Balloons are one of the oldest forms of surveillance technology. The Japanese military used them to launch incendiary bombs in the U.S. during World War II. They were also widely used by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
More recently, the Pentagon has reportedly been considering adding high-altitude inflatables into the Defense Department’s surveillance network. Modern balloons typically hover between 80,000 and 120,000 feet above the earth’s surface.
Montana is one of the places where the object that defense officials have “very high confidence” was a Chinese high-altitude balloon was spotted. It is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
However, a senior America defense official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity said the U.S. has assessed that the balloon has “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence that couldn’t be obtained by other technologies, such as spy satellites.