Surveillance Balloon, Likely Chinese, Lingering Over U.S., DOD Says


Credit: U.S. government

The U.S. government has detected a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental U.S., and a senior defense official says the Pentagon is highly confident it belongs to China.

The Pentagon announced the discovery on Feb. 2, saying that though the balloon has flown over sensitive locations including nuclear missile fields, senior military officials advised President Joe Biden not to shoot the balloon down to avoid potential debris.

“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana, but we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down,” the official says. 

A senior defense official told reporters the balloon is flying at an altitude higher than commercial aircraft and does not pose a direct physical threat. The official also said the balloon is loitering over the U.S., and the Pentagon has assessed that it does not provide increased value over other surveillance means such as satellites, despite not knowing specifically what the surveillance payload is. 

U.S. officials have expressed their concerns about the balloon to the Chinese government through the Chinese embassy in Washington and the American embassy in Beijing, adding that the U.S. will do whatever is necessary for its protection. The Air Force scrambled F-22s on Feb. 1 and temporarily stopped traffic at the Billings, Montana, airport in case the decision was made to shoot the balloon down.

The official would not provide details on the dimensions of the balloon, but it was assessed that it is big enough to create a damaging debris field if downed. 

This is not the first time a balloon like this has been spotted over the U.S. Similar instances have occurred a few times before, though the official would not provide more details. This balloon has loitered over the U.S. longer than in prior incidents, the official said. There have been reports of unknown balloons over the U.S. reported by pilots in Pentagon unexplained aerial phenomena reports as well.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.


This is the most absurd thing I have ever read. The Chinese invade our airspace, gather intelligence, and the bureaucracy from the President on down is too chicken to shoot it down. My favorite: "but we just couldn’t buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down,” But apparently they feel "comfort" letting an enemy gather all the intelligence they need with no response. What a despicable, inept bunch of cowards.
Turnabout is fair play, I guess:
China says it's theirs but U.S. hobbyists have done this for years with Ham radio APRS GPS tracking and cameras. Biden is a wimp. Shoot it down while it's in our airspace and see who it belongs to. Would be funny if it was a U.S. hobbyist's project. In that case, embarrassing to the U.S. and Chinese both! Kurt
The pentagon says there is no intelligence of additional value to be obtained by the Chinese but using the balloon. Then why did the Chinese fly the mission?

The pentagon says that they do not know what the mission package of the balloon does? Then why didn’t take the opportunity to force it down so that they could examine it?

If the pentagon is concerned about a falling balloon hitting something in Montana, then where else in the US would they ever be “comfortable” with forcing such a device out of the sky?

Finally, balloons don’t “loiter”. Their flight path is at the whim of the winds.
I don't know why people are surprised. Like all illegal aliens these days, the balloon is allowed free entry and passage without hindrance. The only think I'm shocked about is why the Biden Administration has not yet given the balloon an EBT card and a reservation to stay at a five-star hotel when it's tired of spying.
US company Aerostar flies high altitude balloons frequently.