China has confirmed that a massive high-altitude balloon seen over Montana this week was an uncrewed Chinese airship.
The balloon was spotted near Billings, Montana, on Wednesday (Feb. 1) as it appeared to be hovering stationary, high in the sky. On Thursday (Feb. 2), U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed that they had detected and are tracking a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" over the continental United States. NORAD stated the balloon poses no physical or military threat to anyone on the ground, according to Cmdr. Gen. Glen VanHerck.
In a rare public apology, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Friday (Feb. 3) that confirms the high-altitude airship is indeed from China and that it "is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes." China's statement says the airship deviated from its course due to prevailing winds from the west and that the "Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace." Despite the apology, the presence of the Chinese balloon has already caused an international stir.
Canada, which runs NORAD alongside the United States, issued its own statement through its Department of National Defence. "A high-altitude surveillance balloon was detected and its movements are being actively tracked by NORAD," the statement reads. "Canadians are safe and Canada is taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident."
Despite hawkish statements being thrown around in the halls of U.S. Congress, a Department of Defense (DOD) statement published Thursday states that "the U.S. position is to allow the balloon to continue to float above the United States, rather than attempt to shoot it down" due to the risk of debris falling on civilians below.
"Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective," according to an unnamed official quoted in the DOD's statement. "But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information. We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area," the official continued.
The appearance of the balloon prompted a ground stop on air traffic in Billings, NBC reported.
The balloon isn't the first such incursion. "It's happened a handful of other times over the past few years, to include before this administration," the official continued. "It is appearing to hang out for a longer period of time, this time around, [and is] more persistent than in previous instances. That would be one distinguishing factor."
The balloon's exact altitude hasn't been shared by the U.S. government or military agencies, but the same official noted that it is flying well above commercial airline traffic. On Friday (Feb. 3), the Washington Post's Dan Lamothe reported that Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the balloon is flying at 60,000 feet (18 kilometers), and added that the Pentagon is confident that airship is being used for surveillance.
Images of the airship shared on social media show a massive white envelope (the gas-filled portion) beneath which hang solar panels on trusses. One expert quoted by Reuters estimated its size to be "equivalent to three bus lengths," which would make it between 60 and 120 feet (18 to 36 meters) across.
Officials have not commented about what types of sensors the balloon might carry. Montana, where the balloon was seen, is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three U.S. military installations that oversee the United States' Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Bloomberg reports that the White House has announced it will postpone Secretary of State Antony Blinken's upcoming trip to Beijing due to the incident.