U.S. military officials have decided to not shoot down a Chinese spy balloon that is hovering over the continental United States to avoid creating debris that could potentially injure people and cause damage on the ground, a senior defense official told reporters on Thursday.
The official briefed reporters on Thursday along with Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, who said the North American Aerospace Defense Command and other U.S. government agencies are tracking the “high altitude surveillance balloon.”
“The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic,” Ryder said. “It does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years. Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
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U.S. government officials have “very high confidence” that the spy balloon comes from China, said the senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under rules established by the Pentagon. The official did not elaborate on exactly how the U.S. intelligence community determined the spy balloon belongs to China.
After President Joe Biden asked for military options to respond to the balloon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held a meeting of senior military leaders on Wednesday, the senior defense official said. Both Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, strongly recommended against shooting down the balloon to avoid the possibility of hurting people and causing property damage.
Military officials had considered downing the spy balloon on Wednesday while it was hovering over Montana, but they ultimately decided it was too risky, the senior defense official said.
“We have to do the risk/reward here,” the senior defense official said. “The first question is: Does it pose a threat — a physical, kinetic threat — to individuals in the United States, the U.S. homeland. Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a threat to civilian aviation? Our assessment is it does not. Does it pose a significantly enhanced threat on the intelligence side? Our best assessment right now is that it does not.”
“And, so given that risk, that profile, we assess that the risk of downing it — even if the probability was low in a sparsely populated area — of the debris falling and hurting somebody or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it,” the official continued. “And that was the recommendation of our military commanders. That is what we recommended to the White House yesterday.”
While surveillance balloons have overflown the United States a handful of times in the past several years, this particular spy balloon appears to be lingering over the homeland longer than its predecessors, the senior defense official said.
U.S. officials have determined that whatever intelligence the spy balloon could gather would not be significantly better than other methods that China spies on the United States with, including satellites, the senior defense official said.
“We know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it’s passing over, and we are taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk,” the senior defense official said.
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