The US military is tracking a Chinese high-altitude spy balloon as it makes its way over the northern United States.
But the White House decided against shooting it out of the sky after being advised against it by defence officials, including Gen Mark Milley the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff.
A Pentagon official told a press briefing in Washington DC the suspected balloon had been spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday.
It had first flown over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana.
China has since confirmed ownership of the ballon, saying it is a civilian airship used for research purposes that was blown off course unexpectedly by strong winds.
This is everything we know so far about the spy balloon.
What has Pentagon said about spy balloon?
“The United States Government has detected and is tracking a high altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” said Brig Gen Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary said in a statement on Thursday night.
“The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely. 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 US government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”
At a press conference on Friday, Brig Gen Ryder said that the US was continuing to weigh its options and described the airship’s presence as an “unacceptable” violation of US airspace.
“We are aware of the (People’s Republic of China) statement. However, the fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon.”
He said the balloon was moving eastward over the centre of the United States at an altitude of 60,000 feet on Friday.
The balloon has the ability to maneuver and had “changed course”.
He refused to give precise details about the airship’s location, adding: “The public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is.”
Brig Gen Ryder flatly rejected Beijing’s claims that the airship was a meteorological research ballon.
What has China said?
China initially reacted to reports of the balloon on Friday morning by saying it was looking into those reports and urging officials in Washington to remain calm as Beijing had “no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country”.
“China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international laws, and China has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.
“Speculation and hype are not conducive until the facts are clear.”
Without denying the reports, the spokesperson added: “As for the balloon, as I’ve mentioned just now, we are looking into and verifying the situation and hope that both sides can handle this together calmly and carefully.”
The top official also said politicians and the public should withhold judgement “before we have a clear understanding of the facts” about the spy balloon sightings.
In a subsequent statement, the foreign ministry claimed the balloon is a “civilian airship” that had blown off course due to wind.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” the statement read. “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.”
F-22s scrambled to intercept balloon but did not take a shot
“You did see reports yesterday of a ground stop at Billings Airport and the mobilization of a number of assets, including F-22,” a senior defence official told reporters.
“The context for that was that we put some things on station in the event that a decision was made to bring this down while it was over Montana.
“So we wanted to make sure we were coordinating with civil authorities to empty out the airspace around that potential area. But even with those protective measures taken, it was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn’t drive the risk down low enough. So we didn’t take the shot.”
Why did military advise against shooting balloon down?
“Why not shoot it down? We have to do the risk-reward here,” a senior defence official told reporters.
“So the first question is, does it pose a threat, a physical kinetic threat, to individuals in the United States in the US 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.
“So given that profile, we assess the risk of downing it, even if the probability is low in a sparsely populated area of the debris falling and hurting someone or damaging property, that it wasn’t worth it.”
Montana’s governor reacts
“I received an informational briefing yesterday on the situation involving a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana,” said Governor Greg Gianforte
“From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I’m deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security.”
What Montana targets could China be interested in spying on?
Montana has long been the location for some of the US’s nuclear arsenal and is home to one of three known major nuclear missile silo fields. The other two are in Wyoming and North Dakota.
The Air Force at Malmstrom maintains 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos across its 13,800-square-mile complex in central Montana, according to the Pentagon.
“Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” the official, briefing reporters anonymously, said on Thursday.