The Chinese surveillance balloon that floated over U.S. airspace is maneuverable and is currently in the central United States, a top Pentagon official told reporters on Feb. 3.
The balloon, which had hovered over the state of Montana where nuclear silos are housed, has a “large payload underneath the surveillance component” of the balloon, according to Defense Department spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.
It is currently heading eastward at an altitude of about 60,000 feet, Ryder said, adding that he expects the balloon’s continued presence in the United States over the next few days.
He didn’t provide a specific location of the balloon, saying that it’s changing by the hour.
“We know the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable,” Ryder said in a press briefing. “We have conveyed this directly to the PRC at multiple levels, and in terms of specific locations I will not be able to go into specific locations other than to say it is moving eastward at this time,” he said, using the acronym of the People’s Republic of China.
He said the balloon is “maneuverable” and “has changed its course, which is why we are monitoring it,” but refused to go into the timing of such change or how the Pentagon has been tracking it, when pressed by reporters.
“We know this is a Chinese balloon and it has the ability to maneuver,” Ryder said. “We assess the balloon does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. We will continue to monitor and review options.”
The balloon flew from China, then to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and through northwest Canada before arriving somewhere in Montana on Wednesday, according to reports.
The balloon has a surveillance device underneath “large enough to be concerning if there were a debris field,” according to Ryder. He said his department is monitoring the balloon “closely” and reviewing options.
The Pentagon previously said it considered shooting down the balloon but eventually decided against the idea due to the potential risk for civilians on the ground posed by the debris.
Ryder declined to say whether such action is still under consideration, maintaining that this is classified information.
A defense official also said the Pentagon had assessed that the balloon has “limited” value in terms of providing intelligence it couldn’t obtain by other technologies, such as spy satellites. The Pentagon also put in place unspecified mitigation measures, the official said.
It remains unclear how much or what sensitive information the balloon has gathered. The Chinese regime on Friday claimed the device is a civilian balloon doing meteorological research that had “deviated far from its planned course” due to forces beyond its control.
“Once the balloon was detected, we acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Ryder said.
Earlier on Friday, Washington postponed a planned trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in response to the balloon’s discovery. President Joe Biden, at a press briefing focused on the U.S. economy on Friday morning, ignored a question about the visit’s postponement.
“The presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
Ryder, when asked about Beijing’s statement, reiterated the same position.
“We are aware of the PRC statement. The fact is we know it is a surveillance balloon,” he said. “We know the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable. we have conveyed this directly to the PRC at multiple levels.”