On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder confirmed to American media that the military is actively monitoring a suspected Chinese “spy balloon” last seen drifting over the state of Montana, which is believed to have entered the United States from Canada after passing through the Aleutian Islands. Balloons have long been used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operates due to they ability to operate at high altitudes for long periods of time.
— Chris Robinson (@TheCEOofData) February 2, 2023
American defense officials told the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press that there is “very high confidence” that the Chinese ISR balloon flew over sensitive military sites to collect information. One likely target is the Malmstrom Air Force Base, which operates Minuteman III ICBMs, as well as other missile infastructure in the state. Analysts and officials have downplayed the intelligence risk posed by the balloon, as imaging obtained by it could also be done so more easily using satellites. The balloon also looks similar to ones spotted over India and Japan in previous years.
Same balloon was spotted over Japan on June 17th, 2020 in Hachinohe City, and September 3, 2021 in Miyagi Prefecture pic.twitter.com/NDyjstXp7B
— Balloon Science by Dan (@BalloonSciDan) January 6, 2022
Ryder also added that “out of an abundance of caution, we have taken additional mitigation steps” to “protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information,” but did not go into detail as what that means.
So far no steps have been taken to down the balloon, as its debris could pose a danger to civilian areas on the ground. American F-22 Raptor stealth fighters have been positioned to shoot it down when ready. The balloon’s exact location remains unclear at this time to the public, but officials say its current altitude does not pose a threat to commercial aircraft.
On Friday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that his upcoming trip to China next week has been postponed indefinitely. The trip was supposed to entail several high level meetings, likely to discuss issues like Taiwan, new U.S. naval bases in Guam and the Philippines, and trade, among other tension points in U.S.-Chinese relations.
#DOD says high altitude balloon over Montana yesterday was a spy balloon from #China. I did a quick run of the #NOAA HYSPLIT model to trace backwards the path of an object. Using 14K meters over Montana yesterday I get the following – Yup Central China!https://t.co/FHiG79f4th pic.twitter.com/DeZLjjkPei
— Dan Satterfield (@wildweatherdan) February 2, 2023
The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement confirming the balloon is from China, but said that it was a civilian research airship used for “meteorological purposes.”
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” the Ministry said.
Ryder has stated that the United States is in contact with China over teh incident, saying that “We have engaged PRC officials with urgency through multiple channels. They’ve been engaged both through their embassy here in Washington and through our embassy in Beijing. We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue. But beyond that, I’m not going to go into the content of the message. But we have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.”