On Wednesday, February 1, flights from the nearby airport were diverted due to an unusual bright object in the sky that was captured on camera by an NBC affiliate in Billings, Montana.
On Wednesday, the US pondered shooting down the balloon, but ultimately determined it was not worth the potential risk of debris falling on people and property below, according to a senior US defense official speaking to media on Thursday, Feb. 2.
The official stated that since the balloon's primary purpose is observation, its present flight path does take it over several sensitive locations. Nevertheless, the US has evaluated "It adds little value beyond what the [People's Republic of China] is probably able to gather through methods like satellites in low-Earth orbit. However, we have included extra mitigation measures out of a strong desire for safety."
Chinese spy plane being watched by the US above Montana for days
It was "shared across our intelligence and analytic community," the official said, adding that there was "very high confidence" that the balloon was Chinese. However, the official did not go into further detail regarding how this determination was made.
It is thought to have taken off from a group of volcanic islands off the coasts of Russia and Alaska and flown to Montana on Wednesday, according to NBC.
The official answered, "You have had a balloon of this sort cross over the continental United States before. "A couple other instances in the recent years, including before this government, have also seen it happen. One distinct characteristic might be that it seems to stay out for longer this time and be more persistent than in past instances."
The Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, one of only three such bases in the US housing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, a strategic nuclear weapon, is one of many potential monitoring targets in the region where the balloon was sighted. Colorado, a neighboring state, also houses the Missile Warning Center of the US Space Command.
The civilian airport was temporarily closed as the US military scrambled F-22 Raptors and other aircraft near Billings in response to the balloon being sighted. The US official stated, "But even with those protective procedures in place, our military commanders felt that we didn't drive the danger down low enough, so we didn't take the shot.
The official claimed that the US had communicated with the Chinese government via both the US Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, but he did not specify what message was sent. The official declared on Thursday that "we have made clear we would do everything is necessary to defend our people and our territory," adding that "we will have choices to deal with this balloon" if the US's danger assessment changes.
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