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Pentagon says object spotted over Billings was Chinese spy balloon

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Posted at 4:11 PM, Feb 02, 2023

The Defense Department is "confident" a balloon spotted over Billings Wednesday is a surveillance balloon from China, a senior defense official said Thursday.

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley and vice chairman Gen. Christopher Grady recommended against taking "kinetic action" because of possible danger from falling debris, the defense official said.

President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation.

Several people in the Billings area reported seeing the object in the sky Tuesday. Many suspected a weather balloon.

After showing Brad Mickelson with the National Weather Service in Glasgow videos of the object, he quickly concluded, "it’s not a weather balloon. At least from the National Weather Service.”

A senior defense official said the balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and over Montana. A senior defense official told the network that the balloon remains over the U.S. but declined to say where.

All flights at Billings Logan International Airport were grounded Wednesday afternoon for about two hours as defense authorities weighed what to do about the balloon.

"You did see reports yesterday of a ground stop at Billings airport, and the mobilization of a number of assets including F 22s...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...It was the judgment of our military commanders that we didn't drive the risk down low enough that we didn't take the shot," the senior official said, according to a transcript of a briefing with reporters in Washington, D.C.

Victoria Hill, a city spokeswoman, said three flights experienced delays, including two inbound flights that were diverted and arrived in Billings late and an outbound United Airlines flight.

Billings Director of Aviation Jeff Roach said Thursday before the Pentagon's announcement that "ground stops are not common" unless they are weather-related.

The city won't comment on the military's contention about the Chinese spy balloon, Hill said, referring all questions to the FAA.

Military aircraft was sent to the area in Montana where the balloon was spotted, but defense officials did not confirm whether the planes had the authority to shoot it down.

A senior defense official said the balloon was large enough to potentially do damage on the ground if shot down, but the defense department official declined to get into specifics on its exact size.

Montana is home to multiple siloed nuclear sites, particularly in sparsely populated areas in the northern and central parts of the state. The central official said it's possible the balloon was aiming to get intelligence on those sites, but it's unlikely the balloon could gather anything for the Chinese they couldn't already get from satellite pictures.

The official noted that the U.S. has tracked similar balloon flights in recent years, including during the Biden administration, but the official did not specify when or where.

U.S. officials have expressed their concern over the balloon with the Chinese, the official said.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was "deeply troubled" by the incident.

“I received an informational briefing yesterday on the situation involving a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana. 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," Gianforte said in a written statement.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that he wants a full briefing from the administration.

"As you know, Montana plays a vital national security role by housing nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom AFB. Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana," Daines wrote.