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

(NewsNation) — The U.S. government is continuing to monitor a huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon that has been going across the United States for a few days now.

A senior Defense Department official said there is “very high confidence” the balloon is owned and operated by the Chinese government. The Pentagon, meanwhile, says it knows it is a surveillance balloon — although officials did not get into specific details on Friday as to why they thought that.

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

What happened?

U.S. Defense officials have been tracking the Chinese balloon, which they say is 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 say the balloon does 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 are concerns about the balloon floating over three airbases in or near Montana, U.S. officials have downplayed any tactical advantage it may have.

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.”

Where is the balloon?

On Friday, the balloon was over the central United States, though the Pentagon wouldn’t get into specifics about its location. They did say it is 60,000 feet above the U.S.

“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 is the United States going to 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 this time, Jean-Pierre said the U.S. is 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.

Why haven’t officials shot it down?

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 Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have also said.

However, defense officials say 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, and how has the U.S. responded?

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 current 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 are aware of China’s statement, but still think it is 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 many balloons are being tracked right now?

The U.S. is currently tracking one balloon. Canada, the Toronto Star reported, is tracking a potential second balloon.

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.”

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.