Large Chinese reconnaissance balloon spotted over the US, officials say

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(WASHINGTON) — A massive spy balloon believed to be from China was seen above Montana on Thursday and is being tracked as it flies across the continental United States, with President Joe Biden ultimately deciding against “military options” because of the risk to civilians, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The high-altitude reconnaissance balloon was not the first such vessel to pass over the country in this way, a defense official said in a briefing.

A separate senior official told ABC News the balloon is the size of three buses and complete with a technology bay.

The defense official said they “are confident” the balloon was sent by China. “The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is flying over the continental United States right now,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday.

“NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] continues to track and monitor it closely,” Ryder said.

While the balloon’s purpose remains unclear, one outside expert predicted it was essentially scientific and set off course.

Retired Col. Steve Ganyard, an ABC News contributor, said the balloon appeared to be a standard research vessel — which would mean it was unpowered and drifted with the jet stream.

Separately, the senior defense official told reporters that “instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.”

“It’s happened a handful of other times over the past few years …. It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time this time around,” the defense official said.

The balloon was seen over Montana on Thursday and a U.S. official said F-22s were sent up the same day.

Biden was briefed about the balloon and “asked for military options,” the official said. The president agreed with the recommendation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, and U.S. Northern Command Gen. Glen D. VanHerck to not “take kinetic action due to the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field.”

A senior administration official echoed that view and said in a statement, “We acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” the defense official said. “But we are taking steps nevertheless to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.”

The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that there was a ground stop in Billings, Montana, on Wednesday but an agency spokesperson did not share more details.

Military expert’s view

Ganyard predicted the balloon was an experiment gone awry.

Such balloons are not controlled after their release and while they are normally equipped with mechanisms to deflate over an open area, the mechanisms can fail, Ganyard said. So it’s possible the balloon would have drifted over from China after multiple days, rather than being nefariously deployed.

China intentionally deploying a reconnaissance balloon over the U.S. would be highly provocative, with little value, Ganyard said, noting that Chinese satellites are able to collect information in a similar manner.

ABC News’ Amanda Maile and MaryAlice Parks contributed to this report.

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