The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, S.C., on Feb. 4, 2023. Credit - Randall Hill—Reuters
The alleged Chinese spy balloon that U.S. fighter jets shot down Saturday was likely capable of listening in on Americans’ communications and pinpointing the location of those conversing on the ground, according to the U.S. State Department.
As the massive white balloon traversed the continental U.S. last week, drifting over several sensitive military sites along the way, it carried equipment that was designed to intercept sensitive communications, said a State Department official, who provided a statement on the condition anonymity to discuss the information.
“It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications,” the official said. “It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors.”
China conducted high-altitude surveillance missions in “more than 40 countries across five continents,” the Biden Administration alleged Thursday in a new disclosure that shed light on the size and scope of suspected espionage effort that was carried out over several years. “We know these balloons are all part of a (People’s Republic of China) fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations,” the State Department official said.
Although the Chinese government maintains the aircraft was merely a wayward weather balloon, the U.S. official said the balloon’s equipment “was clearly for intelligence surveillance,” which was aimed at conducting “signals intelligence collection operations.”
The new information was collected by high-flying U-2 spy planes that captured detailed imagery of the balloon floating at around 60,000 ft. before the U.S. military shot it out of the sky, while sensors on the planes collected electronic data that emanated from the payload slung underneath the balloon. As a result, the government was able to determine some of the balloon’s capabilities and forensically piece together a picture of past flights over the U.S. and other countries that previously went undetected.
Armed with fresh intelligence gleaned through observing the balloon’s multi-day trip over Canada and the U.S., the Pentagon now assesses that China sent balloons over the continental U.S. at least four times over the past six years during shorter missions that went undetected until one entered American airspace last week. The Pentagon also established that China’s aerial surveillance program, which included balloons of various sizes and capabilities, carried out missions over Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Europe in recent years, Defense Department spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder said Wednesday.
The State Department determined that the program is run by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) because the balloons are manufactured by a firm that has a relationship with China’s military, according to published PLA procurement documents. “The company also advertises balloon products on its website and hosts videos from past flights, which appear to have overflown at least U.S. airspace and airspace of other countries,” the official said in Thursday’s statement. “These advertised balloon videos seemingly have similar flight patterns as the balloons we have been discussing this week.”
Biden Administration officials appeared before Congress for the first time Thursday to answer questions about how the 200-ft. balloon and its alleged spying apparatus, which was roughly the size of a jetliner, drifted across the middle of the country for four days before it was brought down. During the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, lawmakers wanted to know why the balloon wasn’t shot down when it was first spotted above the Aleutian Islands near Alaska on Jan. 28, and then allowed to travel through Canada two days later, and ultimately into the continental U.S. over Idaho on Jan. 31. It became national news Feb. 2 after the Pentagon admitted the alleged spy balloon was inside the country.
“I don’t want a damn balloon going over the United States when we could have taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” said Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana. “I got a problem with a Chinese balloon flying over my state.”
Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, said the U.S. military wanted to capture the balloon and analyze it. “If we had taken it down over the state of Alaska… it would have been a very different recovery operation,” she said at the hearing. “The water depths offshore the Aleutians… go very quickly, from about 150 feet to over 18,000 feet in the Bering Sea. The winter water temperatures in the Bering Sea hover consistently in the low-30s, which would make recovery and salvage operations very dangerous.”
It remains unclear what information the Chinese were seeking. The balloon’s flightpath took it over sensitive security sites, including a sprawling field in Montana where nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles sit ready-for-launch in underground silos. “We have some very good guesses about that,” Jedidiah Royal, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs said at the hearing. “And we are learning more as we exploit the contents of the balloon and the payload.”
On Thursday, the House passed a resolution condemning China for conducting the overflights, calling it a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty.”
The Pentagon hopes that new information about China’s surveillance practices will be collected from the operation to salvage remnants of the balloon that U.S. fighter jets shot down Saturday off the South Carolina coast. The Navy has sent underwater drones carrying side-scan sonar arrays, as well as an oceanographic survey ship to map out the Atlantic sea bottom and identify every piece possible in the debris field located about 50 ft. underwater. The FBI is assisting in the mission under counterintelligence authorities.
The diplomatic fallout has been considerable, widening the fissures between Washington and Beijing. The Pentagon admitted Tuesday that China’s defense minister Wei Fenghe declined a request to speak to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after an American fighter jet shot the balloon. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to Beijing on Friday hours before he was set to depart, scuttling an opportunity for a diplomatic détente on shared global challenges.