What we know — and don’t know — about the Chinese balloon

(NewsNation) — What in the world was that thing?

The massive white orb that drifted across U.S. airspace triggered a diplomatic maelstrom and blew up on social media.

China insists the balloon was just an errant civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds and had only limited “self-steering” capabilities.

The United States says it was a Chinese spy balloon without a doubt. Its presence prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China that was aimed at dialing down tensions that were already high between the two countries.

The Pentagon says the balloon, which was carrying sensors and surveillance equipment, was maneuverable and showed it could change course. It loitered over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are siloed, leading the military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.

The U.S. shot down the balloon on Saturday afternoon off the Carolina coast. Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. An operation was underway to recover the remnants.

While questions remain about what exactly the balloon was being used for, here is what is known so far:

What happened?

U.S. Defense officials were tracking the Chinese balloon, which they say was being used for spying, for days. It drifted over the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s mainland and Canada before coming back to the United States.

Is the balloon dangerous?

Federal officials said the balloon did not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, 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 of 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. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

While there were concerns Friday about the balloon floating over three airbases in or near Montana, U.S. officials downplayed any tactical advantage it may have had.

The three airbases, which are known to have long-range nuclear missile silos, are Malmstrom Air Force Base, about four hours north of Billings, Montana; Minot Air Force Base, to the east in North Dakota; and Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, just south in Wyoming.

On “NewsNation Live,” Retired Maj. Gen. William Enyart said this balloon is “really insignificant.”

“This balloon is not going to add anything that the Chinese aren’t already getting,” Enyart said. “The only two possible useful pieces of information that they could get from it would be weather and wind patterns at altitude — which could potentially impact missiles and bombers — and secondly, our ability to detect, track and react to a high-altitude, airborne device.”

“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.

What did the United States do about it?

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden was briefed Tuesday about the balloon and asked military advisers to present options. It was their strong recommendation at that time not to take action, advice the president took “seriously,” she said. At the time, Jean-Pierre said the U.S. was keeping all options open.

However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did postpone a planned high-stakes diplomatic trip to Beijing because of the balloon. Although he had been prepared on Thursday to travel to China this weekend, the Biden administration began to reconsider the trip after the balloon was detected Wednesday.

CNN reported that Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, said Friday that the UN is concerned “whenever there are heightened tensions between China and the U.S.”

“Given the global leadership position of both countries, I think it is incumbent on them to do whatever they can to lower tensions,” Dujarric said, according to CNN.

Former President Donald Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social that the U.S. should shoot down the balloon, something Republican lawmakers including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have also said.

However, defense officials said this would not be a safe option, as falling debris could be a risk to residents on the ground.

Retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, former supreme allied commander of NATO, said the U.S. also likely does not want to begin shooting in areas that are considered contentious.

“We fly in a lot of places in the South China Sea with our aircraft. … China claims that as their airspace. There may be a consideration out there that we don’t want to start a process of shooting things that are in these kinds of contested areas,” Breedlove told NewsNation host Leland Vittert in an interview.

Even if U.S. officials did decide to bring the balloon down, the likelihood that it would strike anything of value is pretty low, Breedlove went on to say.

“I think the military is making the right call in not shooting it down,” Enyart said.

What has China said?

Though China has angrily denounced surveillance attempts by the U.S. and others in the past, it was relatively conciliatory in its response to the complaints about the balloon, The Associated Press reported.

The AP said China’s statement “approached an apology,” adding the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research.

The balloon had limited “self-steering” capabilities, and winds caused it to deviate far from its planned course, China said.

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said. “Force majeure” is a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.

Ryder said Pentagon officials were aware of China’s statement, but still thought it was a surveillance balloon. He did not get more specific than that.

“The balloon has violated US airspace and international law, which is unacceptable,” Ryder said. The U.S., he added, has communicated that to Chinese leaders at multiple levels.

How big is the balloon?

Pentagon officials would not get into the specific size of the balloon, only saying that it is large enough that any potential debris would be significant and cause property damage, civilian injuries, or even death.

The AP reported that one defense official said the balloon is the size of three buses.

Have high-altitude balloons been used for military missions before?

“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” Ryder said. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

What made this different was the length of time it was over U.S. territory and how far into the country it penetrated, according to Ryder.

Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Chinese surveillance balloons have been sighted on numerous occasions over the past five years in different parts of the Pacific, including near sensitive U.S. military installations in Hawaii. 

Reuters wrote that during World War II, the Japanese military tried to loft incendiary bombs into U.S. territory using balloons “designed to float in jet stream air currents.” Several civilians were killed when one of the balloons crashed in an Oregon forest, Reuters said.

And then, just after the war, the military explored the use of high-altitude spy balloons. During a series of missions, called Project Genetrix, photographic balloons were flown over Soviet bloc territory in the 1950s.

The Associated Press, Reuters and NewsNation digital content producer Tyler Wornell contributed to this report.


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