U.S. forces in the Middle East spotted a Chinese stratospheric balloon floating through the region last fall, though it did not pass over any “sensitive” military sites and was not seen as a threat, an Air Force three-star general told reporters Monday.

It’s the latest acknowledgment of China’s global airborne intelligence program, which has come under scrutiny since a balloon passed into American airspace late last month.

Chinese balloons periodically fly over U.S. Central Command, with no particular pattern, Air Forces Central boss Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich said at a roundtable hosted by the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington.

He did not specify where American forces noticed the balloon in the incident last fall, but said it did not veer close to U.S. military hubs in the area. Around 40,000 to 60,000 U.S. troops are deployed across CENTCOM.

“[It] primarily stayed out over the water, and just transited through the region,” he said. “Was it a weather balloon? Was it some sort of a surveillance balloon? We never got up close to it because it was never a threat.”

Grynkewich declined to provide additional details of the incident, citing classified information. He recalled spotting “one or two others” in the few years prior — adding that he’d like to look into using balloons in U.S. military surveillance operations as well.

American forces have shot down four airborne objects in the past nine days, including the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 4, and other “unidentified” objects over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron between Feb. 10-12.

China on Monday alleged the U.S. has illegally flown more than 10 high-altitude balloons in Chinese airspace over the past year, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. has denied the claim.

The Biden administration believes the Chinese balloon downed on Feb. 4 was designed to collect intelligence signals as part of a vast aerial surveillance program targeting more than 40 countries, the AP said.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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