By Edward Wong
The Chinese spy balloon shot down by the U.S. military over the Atlantic Ocean was capable of collecting communications signals and was part of a fleet of surveillance balloons directed by the Chinese military that had flown over more than 40 countries across five continents, the State Department said Thursday.
The United States used high resolution imagery from U-2 flybys to determine the balloon’s capabilities, the department said in a written announcement, adding that the balloon’s equipment “was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons.”
The agency said the balloon had multiple antennas in an array that was “likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications.” Solar panels on the machine were large enough to produce power to operate “multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” the department said.
The agency also said the U.S. government was “confident” that the company that made the balloon had direct commercial ties with the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military, citing an official procurement portal for the army. The department did not name the company.
“The United States will also explore taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace,” the State Department said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners.”
The department said the company advertises balloon products on its website and has posted videos from past flights that apparently flew over U.S. airspace and the airspace of other nations. The videos show balloons that have similar flight patterns as the surveillance balloons that the United States has been discussing this week, the agency said.
U.S. officials do not know exactly what kinds of communications the satellite was trying to collect and have not determined what sites the balloon was targeting, U.S. officials say.
Officials say they took steps at nuclear launch sites and other military bases to try to ensure there was no useful information that the balloon could collect. The U.S. government also took steps to protect official communications in the balloon’s path. While officials say they are confident the balloon did not get any sensitive data on U.S. nuclear sites, they are unsure what it did collect.
It would be relatively easy for signals-collection devices to get data on what mobile phones are in use around a military base, current and former officials say.
Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, told a Senate committee Thursday that the spy balloon episode “put on full display what we’ve long recognized — the PRC has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.”
U.S. officials say the Biden administration has declassified information it has gathered on the balloon that traversed the United States last week and the Chinese military’s broader balloon surveillance operations in order to inform the American public and allied and partner nations of China’s espionage activities. The administration is hopeful the intelligence will counter China’s narrative of the balloon and put pressure on its government to curb some of its aerial surveillance, the U.S. officials say.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Feb. 3, after the Pentagon announced it had discovered the spy balloon hovering over Montana, that the balloon was a civilian machine from China mainly used for weather research, and that it had regrettably drifted off course. It also said a second balloon, which the Pentagon asserted was a surveillance machine drifting at the time over Latin America, was mainly used for weather research.
The presence of the balloon in the United States last week ignited a diplomatic crisis and prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to Beijing, where he had been expected to meet President Xi Jinping of China. Blinken said the balloon had violated U.S. sovereignty and was “an irresponsible act” by China.
After a U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon Saturday, the Chinese government said the United States had overreacted and violated international convention, and that China had “the right to respond further.”
The Chinese government also said the balloon belonged to China and should not be kept by the United States.
The U.S. government says it has discovered instances of at least five Chinese spy balloons in American territory — three during the Trump administration and two during the Biden administration. The spy balloons observed during the Trump administration were initially classified as unidentified aerial phenomena, U.S. officials said. It was not until after 2020 that officials closely examined the balloon incidents under a broader review of aerial phenomena and determined that they were part of the Chinese global balloon surveillance effort.
Divers from the U.S. Navy have pulled debris from the downed balloon out of the shallow waters off the South Carolina coast. Investigators from the Pentagon, FBI and other intelligence agencies are examining the parts to see if the Chinese military or enterprises with ties to it are using technology from American or other Western companies, U.S. officials said.
The discovery of any such technology could spur the Biden administration to take harsher actions to ensure that companies do not export technology to China that can be used by the country’s military and security agencies.
U.S. officials said they expect that the debris from the spy balloon will give them some insight into how Chinese engineers are putting together surveillance technology.
“There is an ongoing operation to recover the balloon’s components,” Blinken said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’re analyzing them to learn more about the surveillance program. We will pair that with what we learn from the balloon — what we learn from the balloon itself — with what we’ve gleaned based on our careful observation of the system when it was in our airspace, as the president directed his team to do.”
The New York Times reported Saturday that a classified intelligence report given to Congress last month highlighted at least two instances of a foreign power using advanced technology for aerial surveillance over U.S. military bases, one inside the continental U.S. and the other overseas. The research suggested China was the foreign power, U.S. officials said. The report also discussed surveillance balloons.
The State Department began a campaign this week to inform other countries of China’s balloon surveillance program. It has sent information on the program to its embassies and directed diplomats abroad to meet with officials in their host countries. U.S. diplomats are also talking to their foreign counterparts in Washington.
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that China’s spy balloon program is part of a global surveillance effort designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world. With the flights, Chinese officials are trying to hone their ability to gather data about U.S. military bases — in which it is most interested — as well as those of other nations in the event of a conflict or rising tensions, U.S. officials say. They add that the program has operated out of multiple locations in China.
China’s National University of Defense Technology has a team of researchers studying advances in balloons. And as early as 2020, People’s Liberation Army Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese military, published an article describing how near space “has become a new battleground in modern warfare.” In recent years, the paper has been telling its officer readers in sometimes hyperbolic language to take balloons seriously.
The balloons have some advantages over the intelligence-gathering satellites that orbit the earth in regular patterns, U.S. officials say.
They fly closer to earth and drift with wind patterns, which are not as predictable to militaries and intelligence agencies as the fixed orbits of satellites, and they can evade radar. They can also hover over areas, while satellites are generally in constant motion. Simple cameras on balloons can produce clearer images than those on orbital satellites, and other surveillance equipment can pick up signals that do not reach the altitude of satellites.
If the Chinese Strategic Support Force was responsible for the recent balloon mission over the United States, the force’s relative newness and fragmented background may help to explain how the operation went ahead with seemingly little calculation of the trouble it could create, said Gill, who has studied the force. It was formed as part of a sweeping military reorganization Xi launched in 2015, absorbing parts of the air force, navy and army.
Poor internal communication between the Chinese military and civilian government, and even inside the People’s Liberation Army and Strategic Support Force itself, may have contributed to the problem, Gill said.
“It’s a really good example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing in China,” he said.
The recent attention on China’s balloon program may discourage the Chinese military from deploying new ones for a while. But the research will likely forge ahead.
Military scientists, especially at China’s National University of Defense Technology, have worked on new materials, designs and navigation tools to make balloons more nimble and long-lasting. They have filed patents for innovations such as a “three-dimensional flight path tracking method for an unmanned airship,” and articles in the Chinese military’s newspapers indicate it pays attention to balloon developments in the United States, France, Israel and other countries.
One lecturer from the National University of Defense Technology, wrote last year in the Liberation Army Daily that China could try to develop smart high-altitude balloons that are able to escape the more turbulent lower atmosphere and catch the steadier wind currents of the upper atmosphere, enabling them to surf long distances helped by small motors.
“With their many advantages,” another article in the same newspaper said last year, “balloons seem to be ushering in their springtime of development.”
Chinese researchers have also speculated about using high-altitude balloons to carry and launch missiles from near space, where they would be harder to detect, to earth.
In 2018, China’s state broadcaster said researchers had tested a balloon platform they said could be used to launch hypersonic weapons — which can fly at several times the speed of sound — from midair. But Chinese reports about the country’s military advances are prone to exaggeration. That report noted that the test used scale models, and it is debatable whether China’s other military balloon capabilities always live up to the swaggering claims.
Technical shortcomings may help explain the untimely appearance of the Chinese balloon over the United States — just before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to fly to Beijing. He canceled that trip.
“It may have been bad timing,” Su said. “It’s become relatively easy to control the direction of balloons, but controlling their speed is a different matter.”