(Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.)
The Pentagon is currently tracking a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon flying above "sensitive sites" in the United States, though U.S. officials have decided it's too risky to shoot it down.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the balloon is being monitored closely by North American Aerospace Defense Command.
“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” he said. “The balloon is currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and 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 the collection of sensitive information.”
A senior defense official who briefed reporters said the U.S. government has “very high confidence” that the balloon is Chinese but declined to provide specifics.
The official said the balloon has been flying over the United States for “some time” and that it entered U.S. airspace “a couple days ago.”
“We have had custody of it the entire time it has been over U.S. airspace,” the official said.
The U.S. military considered shooting the balloon down over Montana yesterday and mobilized F-22 jets to possibly do so but eventually determined that the shot was not worth it, given the risk to the safety of people on the ground, according to the official.
“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” the official said. “But we are taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”
The official would not provide the specific dimensions of the balloon but said it is “sizeable” and has been seen by U.S. aircraft and is large enough to cause damage from the “debris field if we downed it over an area.”
The official acknowledged the balloon’s flight path took it over possible “sensitive” U.S. nuclear sites, though the official said it is unlikely the Chinese have been able to learn much from it.
“Our best assessment at the moment is that whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value-added over and above what the [People’s Republic of China] is likely able to collect through things like satellites and low-earth orbit,” the official said.
The U.S. military, however, is taking classified steps to be “extra vigilant” to mitigate any risk of foreign intelligence collection.
“I’m not going to go into what those are,” the official said. “But we know exactly where this balloon is, what it is passing over.”
The official said this is not the first time a balloon of this nature has passed over the continental United States, though this one is spending more time loitering over “a number of sensitive sites.”
“It happened a handful of other times over the past few years to include before this administration,” the official said. “It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time this time around.”
When asked if it's possible the Chinese wanted the lingering balloon to be detected, the official said the question is better directed at the Chinese.
“I will say over the past number of times it did not loiter over the continental United States for an extended period of time; this is different,” the official said.
The official said the United States is now discussing the matter with Chinese officials.
“We have communicated to the them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the official said. “We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.”
The news comes as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is expected to visit China next week and as the United States has announced new military basing agreements with the Philippines.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has released a statement saying the balloon is a “civilian airship” that was blown off-course.
“It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” the ministry said. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”