Defense Press Secretary Pat Ryder said the federal government is certain the Chinese object traversing U.S. airspace is a “surveillance balloon,” he said Friday in response to the Chinese government’s claim it is a “civilian airship.”
“The balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable,” Ryder said while briefing reporters on Friday, a day after the Pentagon said the balloon was detected over Billings, Montana on Wednesday.
The Chinese government on Friday apologized for the incident and claimed the balloon, which is approximately the size of three buses, is a “civilian airship” used for weather research that was blown off course, the ministry said in a statement.
The balloon “continues to move eastward and is currently over the center of the continental United States,” Ryder said.
Ryder also reiterated the Pentagon’s stance that shooting down the balloon—as some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump have suggested—could “potentially cause civilian injuries or deaths or significant property damage.”
Criticism of the Biden Administration’s handling of the situation and demands for answers about why the federal government failed to prevent the alleged airspace breach crossed party lines on Friday. “This provocation is completely unacceptable,” Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.) said in a statement, adding that lawmakers “are still waiting for real answers on how this happened and what steps the Administration took to protect our country, and I will hold everyone accountable.” Republicans, meanwhile, have cast the incident as an example of what they say is President Joe Biden’s failure to reign in Beijing. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) accused Biden of “coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists,” he tweeted, and Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) alleged Chinese President Xi Jingping is “spying on America because he does not fear or respect Joe Biden,” he tweeted.
While the public first learned of the balloon’s presence late Thursday, Biden was briefed on its existence Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Friday. The Pentagon sent F-22 fighter jets to trail the balloon on Wednesday, The New York Times reported, citing a senior defense official.
Defense officials said the balloon traveled over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and through Canada before arriving in the U.S., where it reportedly flew over sensitive locations. Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses one of the U.S.’s three nuclear missile silo fields. Canadian Defense officials also confirmed on Thursday that a surveillance balloon was being “actively tracked” by the North American Aerospace Defense Command and said it was monitoring a “potential second incident.” White House officials have repeatedly said the balloon “does not present military threat,” Jean-Pierre said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China planned for Friday following the balloon’s detection.