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Montana residents react to suspected Chinese spy balloon

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BILLINGS, Mont. (NewsNation) — A high-altitude balloon flying over the U.S. — that the federal government is now suspecting is a Chinese spy balloon — was first noticed by Billings residents on Wednesday.

Billings residents told NewsNation that the situation is surprising, but some said it’s just a part of the world we live in.

“It’s pretty crazy. To think that something like that could happen up here is insane, we’re kind of a small town,” resident Anthony Morse said. “Nothing in this day and age is really surprising anymore. It is what it is.”

Both incoming and outgoing flights at the Billings-Logan International Airport were temporarily grounded on Wednesday as fighter jets tracked the balloon while the Pentagon considered its defensive options.

U.S. defense officials said they have been tracking the spy balloon for days, watching as it drifted over the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s mainland, then over Canada and eventually back over the U.S. again.

One defense official said the balloon is the size of three buses, and at this time the federal government has not said where the balloon may be heading or how and if they plan to bring it down.

President Joe Biden did indeed suggest shooting it down. However, he took the advice of his defense team and did not because falling debris could be a risk to residents on the ground.

Duke, a resident who only shared his first name, said he could believe it and that it didn’t really surprise him. However, he did say that he believes the federal government should shoot it down.

“They want to know how we are, where everything’s at. How we move, what we eat … they want to know how people live: what they like and dislike,” Duke said.

Shelby Fossum had a similar reaction, saying that while it seems invasive, it’s not something really new to the culture today.

“Seems invasive. That’s kind of our world today, I mean there are cameras everywhere. Like you can’t go unnoticed anywhere,” Fossum said. “You talk about what cereal you need to buy at the grocery store in front of your Alexa and all of a sudden your ads are cereal ads, you know.”

There are legitimate concerns about the balloon floating over Montana as there are three nearby airbases that are known to have long-range nuclear missile silos: Malmstrom Air Force Base about four hours north of Billings, Minot Air Force Base to the east in North Dakota and Francis E. Warren Air Force Base just south in Wyoming.

However, U.S. officials have downplayed any tactical advantage this balloon might have, saying that China has spy satellites — just like us — that are able to provide better information and that the balloon is not getting enough intelligence to pose a threat to national security.

One advantage to the balloons is that they move slower, meaning they can observe an area for a longer time and, in turn, complement additional intel gathered from satellites.

A senior defense official said this is not the first balloon activity the U.S. has dealt with, but this balloon has been over the nation for a couple of days now — higher and longer than others.

“The balloon is over the continental United States right now. The U.S. government, including (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), continues to monitor it closely. The balloon is currently traveling well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement.

A senior defense official said the U.S. has been in contact with China, making it clear they will do whatever they have to to protect the country.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning responded to the situation, saying that “China is a responsible country that has always strictly abided by international laws, and it has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country.”

Ning also said she had no information about whether a trip to China by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken planned for next week will proceed as scheduled.

At a daily briefing, Mao said that politicians and the public should withhold judgment “before we have a clear understanding of the facts” about the spy balloon reports.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the two leaders of the new House Select Committee on China released a joint statement Friday, saying:

“The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace. Not only is this a violation of American sovereignty, coming only days before Secretary Blinken‘s trip to the PRC, but it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy. Indeed, this incident demonstrates that the CCP threat is not confined to distant shores — it is here at home and we must act to counter this threat.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

  • FILE – In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Jackson Ligon, 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron technician, prepares a spacer on an intercontinental ballistic missile during a Simulated Electronic Launch-Minuteman test Sept. 22, 2020, at a launch facility near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont. The U.S. says it is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple days but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm for people on the ground. One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base (Tristan Day/U.S. Air Force via AP)
  • A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm for people on the ground, officials said Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. The Pentagon would not confirm that the balloon in the photo was the surveillance balloon. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

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