Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the top Pentagon spokesman, speaks Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023., during a news briefing at the Pentagon.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the top Pentagon spokesman, speaks Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023., during a news briefing at the Pentagon. (Andrew Harnik/AP )

The Pentagon on Friday rejected China’s claim a balloon floating above the central United States was a Chinese civilian weather research craft, though the Defense Department said the airship posed no threat to Americans on the ground.

“The fact is we know that it's a surveillance balloon,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, told reporters. “We do know that the balloon has violated U.S. airspace and international law, which is unacceptable. And, so we've conveyed this directly to the [People’s Republic of China] at multiple levels.”

Ryder declined to provide many new details about the balloon, including its current location, after the Pentagon hastily called a news conference Thursday evening to announce the Chinese spy balloon was flying over Montana and had been tracked for days by the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The Chinese aircraft was floating eastward over the central United States as of early Friday afternoon at a roughly 60,000-foot altitude, Ryder said. The balloon was carrying a large surveillance payload and had changed course during its trek through U.S. and Canadian airspace, he said, calling the vessel “maneuverable.”

Ryder also declined to provide information about how the Pentagon had determined the balloon was attempting to spy and posed no physical threat to Americans. A senior defense official on Thursday said the United States had considered shooting the balloon down with fighter jets, but ultimately decided against doing so because of fears its debris could hurt people or damage property below.

Ryder would not say whether U.S. officials might revisit shooting down the vessel in the future, including if it flies over a large body of water.

Earlier Friday, the State Department confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken had postponed plans to visit Beijing this weekend. Blinken was due to leave Washington for meetings Sunday and Monday, The Associated Press reported. The visit would have been Blinken's first to China as the top U.S. diplomat, and the first visit of a U.S. Secretary of State to Beijing since 2018.

The balloon’s trek through American airspace was not the first of this kind of spying incident in recent years, Ryder said. However, he said details about past incidents -- including locations of past spy balloon incursions or the countries from which they originated -- were classified, the general said. He also did not say whether the Chinese spy balloon’s current location had been classified, but he noted people in its vicinity could “look up in the sky and see where the balloon is.”

China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that the balloon was Chinese. In a statement, it described the balloon as a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.”

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement reads, referring to uncontrollable circumstances. “The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”

Ryder said the United States would continue to track the balloon. He said the Pentagon believed it would remain over the United States for “a few days.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Doug G. Ware contributed to this report.

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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