The Pentagon said Friday it has no intention of shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon hovering 60,000 feet over the US because “any potential debris field would be significant” and could cause “civil injuries or deaths or significant property damage” — but did not indicate a plan to respond to the slowly progressing violation of “U.S. airspace and international law.”
The enormous balloon has sparked domestic curiosity, political finger-pointing and an international diplomatic crisis, leaving Americans in the middle of the country looking skyward at the white hovering device.
Where it will go — and whether the U.S. military will eventually choose to shoot it from the sky — remains unknown, but officials have confirmed it will continue to move east and reject Beijing’s insistence that it is a weather balloon. blown off the track.
“We will continue to monitor and assess options,” said Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder told reporters that on Friday afternoon.
“The balloon continues to move eastward and is currently over the center of the continental United States,” Ryder said, adding that “we currently assess that the balloon poses no military or physical threat to people on the ground at this time.”
Asked if he was concerned that some Americans would try to “interfere” with the balloon — presumably by intercepting it or shooting it down — Ryder noted that the balloon is flying at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, which is about 11 miles above Earth. ground. ground. It’s “well above the reach of civil air traffic,” Ryder said.
The Chinese government acknowledged that the craft “comes from China”.
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement. website. It said the balloon “deviated far from its planned course” due to strong winds and a lack of steering ability.
Ryder countered, “The fact is, we know it’s a surveillance balloon.” “It has the ability to maneuver,” he said, without going into details.
The U.S. military monitored the balloon for days, U.S. officials and a senior defense official told NBC News Thursday.
It was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, and had flown over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and across Canada to get there, officials said. The destination is notable because Montana is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields.
Ryder declined to give the balloon’s exact location on Friday.
Senator Roger Marshall, R-Kan., said the balloon was above his state. “I can confirm that the Chinese spy balloon NE KS is over. My staff is in contact with law enforcement,” he said tweeted Friday afternoon, adding: “I condemn all attempts by the Chinese to spy on Americans.”
The discovery has heightened tensions between the US and China, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing a planned trip to Beijing next week, two US officials told NBC News.
“We have concluded that the circumstances are not right for Minister Blinken to travel to China at the moment,” said a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Blinken confirmed the postponement at a press conference on Friday, but said “we will continue to engage with the People’s Republic of China as this ongoing issue is resolved. The first step is to move the surveillance assets out of our space. And we’re focused on that.”
Ryder told reporters that the balloon’s presence was “in violation of US airspace and international law, which is unacceptable. We have communicated this directly to the PRC (People’s Republic of China) on multiple levels.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander General Glen VanHerck, to discuss military options to launch the balloon earlier this year. to take down. week.
Pentagon leaders presented those options to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, and he received a “strong recommendation” not to shoot down the balloon, a senior administration official told NBC on Thursday.
The official said the administration “acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information” that the balloon was seeking, noting that this was not the first time this had happened.
“Instances of this activity have been observed in recent years, including prior to this administration,” the official said.
When asked about those past cases on Friday, Ryder declined to comment on details because those incidents are classified, but acknowledged “there have been incidents in the past”.
Several Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration’s response, with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., saying Biden “should stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists. Now bring the balloon down and make use of its technology pack, which could be a source of intelligence.
Staffers from the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of leaders in Congress, received a secret briefing about the balloon Thursday afternoon, three well-known sources told NBC on Friday.
One of the eight, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R.-Calif., tweeted, “China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot remain silent.”