The Spy balloon was spotted near Billings, Montana, on Wednesday (Feb. 1) as it appeared to be hovering stationary(opens in new tab), high in the sky. On Thursday (Feb. 2), U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed that they had detected and are tracking a “high-altitude spy balloon(opens in new tab)” over the continental United States. NORAD stated the spy balloon poses no physical or military threat to anyone on the ground, according to Cmdr. Gen. Glen VanHerck.
US national security officials have constantly warned about Chinese espionage efforts and the spy balloon’s presence in the US comes at a sensitive moment with Secretary of State Antony Blinken expected to travel to Beijing in the coming days, a significant trip meant to follow up on President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.
China has confirmed that a massive high-altitude spy balloon seen over Montana this week was an uncrewed Chinese airship. “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 spokesperson said in a statement.
In a rare public apology, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement(opens in new tab) on Friday (Feb. 3) that confirms the high-altitude airship is indeed from China and that it “is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.” China’s statement says the airship deviated from its course due to prevailing winds from the west and that the “Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace.” Despite the apology, the presence of the Chinese spy balloon has already caused an international stir.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the US government has been tracking the spy balloon for several days as it made its way over the northern United States, adding it was “traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
Canada, which runs NORAD alongside the United States, issued its own statement(opens in new tab) through its Department of National Defence. “A high-altitude spy balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by NORAD,” the statement reads. “Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident.”
Speaking on background, a senior US defense official said senior military officials had advised President Joe Biden not to shoot it down due to fear the debris could pose a safety threat to people on the ground.
Despite hawkish statements(opens in new tab) being thrown around in the halls of U.S. Congress, a Department of Defense (DOD) statement published Thursday(opens in new tab) states that “the U.S. position is to allow the spy balloon to continue to float above the United States, rather than attempt to shoot it down” due to the risk of debris falling on civilians below.
“Currently, we assess that this spy balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective perspective,” according to an unnamed official quoted in the DOD’s statement. “But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area,” the official continued.
While the spy balloon’s current flight path carries it over “a number of sensitive sites,” the official said it does not present a significant intelligence gathering risk. The spy balloon is assessed to have “limited additive value” from an intelligence collection perspective, the official added.
The Spy balloon isn’t the first such incursion. “It’s happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration,” the official continued. “It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around, [and is] more persistent than in previous instances. That would be one distinguishing factor.”
The Spy balloon’s exact altitude hasn’t been shared by the U.S. government or military agencies, but the same official noted that it is flying well above commercial airline traffic(opens in new tab). On Friday (Feb. 3), the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe reported(opens in new tab) that Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the spy balloon is flying at 60,000 feet (18 kilometers), and added that the Pentagon is confident that airship is being used for surveillance.
The US, the official said, is “taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. We are also tracking what abilities it could have in gaining insights, and continue to monitor the spy balloon as it was over the continental United States.”
Images of the airship shared on social media(opens in new tab) show a massive white envelope (the gas-filled portion) beneath which hang solar panels on trusses. One expert quoted by Reuters estimated its size to be “equivalent to three bus lengths,” which would make it between 60 and 120 feet (18 to 36 meters) across.
The US believes Chinese spy satellites in low Earth orbit are capable of offering similar or better intelligence, limiting the value of whatever Beijing can glean from the high-altitude spy balloon, which is the size of three buses, according to another defense official.
Officials have not commented about what types of sensors the balloon might carry. Montana, where the balloon was seen, is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three U.S. military installations that oversee the United States’ Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
China’s Foreign Ministry said “We are trying to understand the circumstances and verify the details of the situation. I’d like to stress that before it becomes clear what happened, any deliberate speculation or hyping up would not help handling of the matter,” ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular news conference, in response to CNN’s query.