Today's D Brief: Chinese balloon wanders over Montana; Oops, says Beijing; Balloon infuriates US lawmakers; Unleashing AF innovation; And a bit more.

Why is a big Chinese balloon flying over the state of Montana? United States military officials at the Pentagon brought attention to the big white apparently wandering dirigible late Thursday after flights in and out of Billings Logan International Airport were halted on Wednesday, according to the local paper, the Billings Gazette. Montana, of course, is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

“We are confident that this high-altitude surveillance balloon belongs to the PRC,” or People’s Republic of China, a Pentagon official told reporters in a call Thursday evening. It was moving “at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground,” the Pentagon said in a statement Thursday. 

President Joe Biden reportedly wanted to shoot it down immediately, according to the Wall Street Journal; but U.S. military officials cautioned more information was needed before doing so safely—considering, e.g., possible debris field created by destroying it and how those pieces may or may not harm people down on the ground. 

New: State Secretary Antony Blinken just postponed his planned visit to Beijing later this month, citing the Chinese balloon, according to Bloomberg news, reporting Friday. Blinken was supposed to sit down for an in-person meeting with China’s autocratic leader Xi Jinping, according to the Financial Times, reporting Thursday.

Coverage continues below…

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New: China’s foreign ministry admitted Friday that the balloon is in fact theirs, and that it’s conducting “research [for] mainly meteorological purposes,” according to Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning. “The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research,” she said in a statement.
“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course,” according to the Foreign Ministry. “The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” which is an unforeseen event that’s beyond Beijing’s control. “The Chinese side will continue communicating with the U.S. side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure,” she repeated in her statement.
“We have no intention to violate the territory or airspace of any sovereign country,” she said at a press conference Friday in Beijing. “As I said, we are gathering and verifying the facts. We hope both sides can handle the matter together in a cool-headed and prudent manner.”
For the record: “Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” the Pentagon said in its statement Thursday evening. The defense official repeated this in the call with reporters, saying, “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration.” Indeed, similar balloons have shown up near Hawaii and Guam, U.S. intelligence officials told the Washington Post. One notable difference this week seems to have been how long the balloon loitered over Montana, with NBC News reporting the duration appears to be longer this time than previous instances.
Worth noting: Canadian officials said Thursday that there might be another balloon. “Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace—including the monitoring of a potential second incident,” according to a short statement from Ottawa.
Congressional reax: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Thursday evening that he wants a briefing from the White House for House and Senate intelligence leaders, known as the “gang of eight.” President Biden “cannot be silent,” he wrote on Twitter, and insisted, “China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed.”
Like Biden, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is more of a shoot-first kind of guy. And as the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, he’s demanding answers from the Pentagon about why the balloon wasn’t shot down immediately—regardless of what exactly might be inside or attached to the floating dirigible. “The Department of Defense owes Congress and the American people a full and accurate accounting of why U.S. forces did not take proactive measures to address this airspace incursion by the People’s Republic of China,” Wicker said in a statement Thursday. “Information strongly suggests the Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon. No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately.”
“The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace,”  said Chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party in a joint statement with the committee’s top Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. “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.”
Historical callback: “In 1945, the crew of USS New York spotted a sphere that they thought might be a Japanese balloon weapon,” the U.S. Naval Institute wrote on Twitter on Thursday evening. “The captain ordered it shot down but none of the guns could score a hit. Finally, a navigator realized they were attacking Venus.”
And in case you missed it: The U.S. Air Force is raising alarm bells over a Chinese-owned corn mill just 15 miles away from North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base. According to USAF Assistant Secretary Andrew Hunter, the project from the firm Fufeng USA “presents a significant threat to national security with both near- and long-term risks of significant impacts to our operations in the area.” Hunter shared his assessment with state lawmakers, according to the New York Times, reporting Monday.
Additional reading: 

Have a safe weekend, everyone (especially our readers around Montana). And we’ll see you again on Monday!