The government has been monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the northern US for the past few days, and military and defense leaders have discussed shooting it out of the sky, according to two US officials and a senior official. defense.

“The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States at this time,” said Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder told NBC News. «We continue to track and monitor closely.»

“Once the balloon was detected, the US government took immediate action to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Ryder said.

The high-altitude balloon was seen over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. He flew from the Aleutian Islands, across Canada and into Montana. A senior defense official said the balloon is still over the US, but declined to say where it is now.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander General Van Herck, and other combatant commanders.

Austin was traveling through the Philippines at the time.

Leaders reviewed the threat profile of the Chinese stratospheric balloon and possible response options, ultimately deciding not to recommend kinetically removing it, due to the risk to the safety of people on the ground from the potential debris field. Pentagon leaders presented the options to President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

“We currently assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence-gathering perspective beyond what the PRC can do by other means,” the senior defense official said. «However, we are taking all necessary measures to protect against the collection of sensitive information by foreign intelligence.» The official said the balloon does not pose a threat to civil aviation due to its altitude.

The official said there was a window while the balloon was over Montana on Wednesday when it could have been shot down. NORAD sent planes, including F-22 Raptors from Nellis Air Force Base and airborne early warning aircraft known as AWACs, but the official did not say whether one of the options was to shoot the balloon out of the sky with a US plane.

US military flights led to a ground stop at Billings airport, with air traffic controllers citing a «special military mission.»

The United States is confident that the balloon belongs to China, the official said, and has communicated this to the Chinese government «through multiple channels both here in DC and in Beijing.» The official did not say whether the Chinese admitted the balloon was theirs.

This kind of activity is unprecedented, the senior defense official said, with China flying stratospheric balloons like this before, but the difference this time is that the balloon stays over the US longer than usual.

The stratosphere begins between 4 and 12 miles above the Earth’s surface and extends about 31 miles, according to the National Metereological Service.

Tensions are high between the United States and China. On Thursday, the Pentagon announced it would beef up the US military presence near Taiwan, with plans to expand the number of US military personnel in the Philippines. Announced during Austin’s visit to Manila, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) designates four more bases where US military personnel can now be based in strategic areas of the country, adding at five already authorized to house US troops.

“We are not looking for a permanent base in the Philippines,” Austin said during a news conference on Thursday.