Pentagon Discovers Suspected China Spy Balloon Over Northwest United States
WASHINGTON — The United States has detected what it says is a Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the northwestern United States, the Pentagon said on Thursday, a discovery that comes days before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s visit to Beijing.
The Pentagon has chosen, for now, not to shoot down the balloon after a recommendation from senior defense officials that doing so would risk debris hitting people on the ground, according to a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The decision to publicize the discovery appears to put China on notice ahead of Mr. Blinken’s Beijing visit — the first by an American secretary of state in six years — during which he is expected to meet with President Xi Jinping. The sudden appearance of the balloon is bound to raise tensions between the two powers.
The official said that while this is not the first time China has sent spy balloons to the United States, it has appeared to remain over the country for longer. Still, a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the balloon did not pose a military or physical threat and added that it had limited value in gathering intelligence. Another defense official said the Pentagon doesn’t think the balloon adds much value compared with what China can glean through satellite imagery.
Pentagon officials said the balloon traveled from China to the Aleutian Islands near Alaska, and through northwest Canada over the past few days before arriving somewhere over Montana, where it was hovering on Wednesday.
It was unclear what China was looking for in Montana, but the state is home to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three US Air Force bases that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters that the balloon is traveling “well above commercial air traffic,” adding that “once the balloon was detected, the US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.” He did not specify what those measures were.
The Pentagon sent F-22 fighter jets to track the balloon Wednesday, leading to flights being temporarily grounded at the Billings airport, the official said, but decided against shooting down the balloon.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III called a meeting of senior military and defense officials on Wednesday to discuss how to handle the situation, the officials said.
Senior Biden administration officials called their Chinese counterparts with urgency using multiple channels, the senior defense official said during a briefing at the Pentagon.
The Biden administration has moved aggressively to put checks on China’s ability to further its technological and military ambitions, drawing fiery rebukes from Beijing. Tensions have escalated in recent months, including over what US officials view as China’s permissive stance toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But by far the most fraught issue between the two powers is Taiwan.
Mr. Blinken has rallied allies and partners to denounce China’s actions in Taiwan. At the same time, Mr. Blinken is a proponent of President Biden’s goal of keeping open channels of communication with China in order to avoid a deterioration of the relationship.
Edward Wong contributed reporting.