WASHINGTON: The Pentagon is tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon that’s lingering at high altitude over the western US, home to sensitive sites including nuclear-missile silos, defense department officials said Thursday.

The Chinese balloon, spotted earlier this week, was loitering over Montana for a short time and briefly caused the grounding of planes in Billings as a precaution, a senior official told reporters on customary condition of anonymity. Officials said it poses no intelligence threat and a decision was made not to shoot it down because of the possible risk of falling debris.

“The US has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “It 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.”

Once US officials became aware of the balloon, defense secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of his top advisers while on a trip to the Philippines on Wednesday and informed President Joe Biden. Its technology doesn’t offer any intelligence-gathering capability beyond what China’s low-orbit satellites already provide, the official said.

US wins expanded access to Philippine bases amid China tensions

The US official declined to answer several questions about the balloon, including the precise target of its surveillance, its size or other specifications. It’s well above the altitude used by civilian aircraft — about 40,000 feet (12,000 meters) — but not at the edge of space, the official said.

Austin was in the Philippines as part of a US effort to rally allies and counter what officials believe is China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan. The US secured access to more Philippine military bases, clearing the way for a greater American presence in the region.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been running high, with the Biden administration becoming more explicit about its willingness to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict. Last week, an Air Force general told his staff he believed the US and China would be at war by 2025.

The senior official said the US had raised the balloon issue with China. The Chinese embassy didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.

Montana is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which is headquartered at Malmstrom Air Force Base and maintains Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It wasn’t the first time a spy balloon had been spotted over US territory, though this one is staying longer than in past cases. The official declined to say why the US believed the balloon belonged to China but said the US had high confidence that was the case.

By 8zerc

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