Chinese spy balloon spotted in American skies, Pentagon says; US weighed shooting it down

WASHINGTON – A Chinese spy balloon has been spotted drifting over the northern United States, and Pentagon officials have considered shooting it down, Defense Department officials said late Thursday.

The decision not to shoot down the balloon was made because of concerns that debris could injure Americans on the ground or destroy property, according to a senior Defense Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

The balloon was over Montana when the U.S. considered destroying it, the official said. It would be shot down if it posed a threat to civilian aviation, the official said. It is floating at an altitude where those planes do not fly.

"The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is flying over the continental United States right now," Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary told reporters. The North American Aerospace Defense Command continues to track and monitor it closely, Ryder said.

The balloon is designed for surveillance, the official said. However, it likely is unable to collect more information than is available to spy satellites.

U.S. officials sought to prevent the Chinese from collecting sensitive information, Ryder said. “Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years, Ryder said. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

U.S. officials have protested the incursion of the spy balloon with Chinese authorities and continue to track its path, the official said. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been briefed on the balloon, the official said.

It is not the first time Chinese spy balloons have flown over the United States, the official said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chinese spy balloon caught drifting over Western United States