Chinese reconnaissance balloon in US airspace sparks international outcry

China has confirmed that a massive high-altitude hot air balloon spotted over Montana this week was an uncrewed Chinese airship.

The balloon was spotted near Billings, Montana on Wednesday (February 1) as it appeared to be hovering motionless. (will open in a new tab), high in the sky. On Thursday (February 2), US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed that they have located and are tracking a “high-altitude surveillance balloon.” (will open in a new tab)“over the continental United States. According to Commander General Glen VanHurke, the balloon stated that the balloon did not pose a physical or military threat to anyone on the ground.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a rare public apology. (will open in a new tab) on Friday (February 3), which confirms that the high-altitude airship is indeed from China and that it “is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.” China said in a statement that the airship veered off course due to prevailing winds from the west, and that “the Chinese side regrets the airship’s inadvertent entry into US airspace.” Despite the apology, the presence of the Chinese balloon has already caused an international outcry.

Read also: China launches new mysterious spy satellite

Canada, which administers NORAD with the US, released its own statement. (will open in a new tab) through his Department of National Defense. A high-altitude balloon has been detected and NORAD is actively monitoring its movements. “Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to keep its airspace secure, including monitoring for a potential second incident.”

Despite hawkish claims (will open in a new tab) in the halls of the US Congress, the US Department of Defense said in a statement Thursday. (will open in a new tab) states that “the position of the US is to allow the balloon to continue to hover over the United States rather than try to bring it down” due to the risk of debris falling on civilians below.

“We are currently evaluating that this balloon has limited added value in terms of collective intelligence gathering,” an unnamed official cited in a US Department of Defense statement said. “But we are nevertheless taking steps to protect against the collection of confidential information by foreign intelligence. We assessed that it was large enough to cause damage with a debris field if we brought it down over a certain area, ”the official continued.

According to NBC, the arrival of the balloon brought air traffic to a halt in Billings.

The balloon is not the first such invasion. “This has happened several times over the past few years, including before this administration,” the official continued. “Looks like he’s hanging out longer this time, [and is] stronger than in previous cases. That would be one of the distinguishing factors.”

The exact height of the balloon’s flight has not been released by either the US government or the military, but the same official noted that it flies well above commercial airlines’ trajectory. (will open in a new tab). This was reported on Friday (February 3) by Washington Post correspondent Dan Lamothe. (will open in a new tab) that Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gene. Patrick Ryder said the balloon was flying at 60,000 feet (18 kilometers) and added that the Pentagon was confident the airship was being used for surveillance.

Pictures of the airship appeared in social networks. (will open in a new tab) show a massive white shell (gas-filled part), under which solar panels hang on farms. One expert cited by Reuters estimated its size as “the equivalent of three bus lengths”, which is 60 to 120 feet (18 to 36 meters) across.

Officials did not comment on what types of sensors the balloon could carry. Montana, where the balloon was spotted, is Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three US military bases that oversee Minuteman III ICBMs.

reports Bloomberg (will open in a new tab) that the White House announced that it would postpone Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing because of the incident.

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