The Pentagon's rationale for not shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon while it was over Montana — out of concern for the safety of those on the ground — is bogus, according to a Montana lawmaker. Montanans would have loved for it to be shot down, the lawmaker says.
"What the Pentagon has said was we didn't want to shoot it down because of the chances of civilian casualties. This is a balloon that didn't get here overnight. It was over the Aleutian chain, which is one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet," Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., told Fox News Digital.
Zinke said there is "no doubt" the U.S. military could have shot down the balloon without injuring civilians or posing a safety risk to Americans. Zinke also suggested that some Montana residents wouldn't mind the balloon being shot down over the state.
"In Montana, Petroleum County, for example, … the least populated county in the lower 48, I guarantee you, the fine citizens of Petroleum County would enjoy having it shot down over their county, and probably there would be a line to shoot it down."
The balloon, which China claims is a civilian reconnaissance airship that inadvertently drifted off course, has moved from Montana airspace into the central U.S., leaving many to question why the Pentagon did not take action to remove the balloon from American airspace while it remained over a sparsely populated region of the country.
Defense Department spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Friday that the Chinese surveillance balloon, which was first reported to be hovering over Montana, had "changed its course" and moved to the central part of the country.
But he declined to get into specifics about its location. Ryder said the North American Aerospace Defense Command is closely monitoring the balloon's location and that it is moving eastward across the U.S.
Hours before Ryder's remarks, officials said the balloon sat above Billings, Montana, potentially giving the Biden administration ample time to act on the situation before it moved into more populated areas of the country. The Pentagon said that while it considered taking down the possible threat, it ultimately decided against any action due to "the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field."
The balloon "no doubt has a limited steering capability because it's a balloon, but they probably have a capability of deflating it," Zinke added. "We should deflate it for them, and we will return it to sender, just like they did with our EP3 a few years ago when that was operating international airspace. They escorted it to a Chinese military base and disassembled it."
Zinke, who said he finds fault with several of the "suspect" positions from the Biden administration relating to the balloon, said the main problem with it is "it shows the world that we can't make a decision."
"If we can't shoot down a balloon, how in the heck can we defend Taiwan," Zinke questioned.
Montana State Auditor Troy Downing also expressed frustration with the Biden administration's inability to act, telling Fox that the balloon's presence above the United States is "clearly an intended provocation" that China believes it can do what it wants in American airspace."
"As an Air Force veteran, we know the Chinese Communist Party has much more advanced surveillance equipment to spy on our nuclear sites," Downing said. "Sending a spy balloon is clearly an intended provocation to show the American people that, under this administration, China can invade our airspace with impunity. President Biden must act now to defend our sovereignty and national security."
The balloon, which Ryder said will "probably be over the United States for a few days," is flying about 60,000 feet above sea level, higher than civilian aircraft fly.
The National Weather Service in Kansas City, Missouri, posted photos of a large balloon visible from its office in Pleasant Hill that appeared to be headed southeast.
"We have confirmed that it is not an NWS weather balloon," NWS Kansas City said.
Senior State Department officials have called the incident "unacceptable," and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indefinitely postponed a planned trip to China to meet President Xi Jinping in light of the circumstances.
A spokesperson for China's foreign ministry claimed the balloon was a civilian weather aircraft that was knocked off course, but U.S. officials dispute this claim.
Senior State Department officials said Friday it was a "statement of fact" that China has violated U.S. sovereignty with this surveillance balloon.
A senior U.S. Defense official told Fox News the balloon was launched from mainland China. The Pentagon does not believe that this was a weather balloon that flew off course. There was no "force majeure" that caused the Chinese surveillance balloon to enter U.S. airspace, as China's foreign ministry spokesperson had claimed.
"This was intentional," the senior U.S. official said.
Fox News' Chris Pandolfo contributed to this article.