U.S. officials revealed more details Thursday regarding the Chinese spy balloon that breached American airspace last week, primarily its communications tracking capabilities.
The balloon, which was first discovered hovering above Montana — home to three of the country’s nuclear missile silos — was capable of “conducting signals intelligence collection operations,” a senior State Department official said.
Signals intelligence refers to electronically collected data, including communications and radars, CNN noted. Photos taken by U-2 planes confirmed that the balloon had “multiple antennas” that likely performed such collection, as well as solar panels that are “large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” the official added.
China, which has vehemently denied espionage allegations, described the balloon as a civilian airship that carried out meteorological research.
However, the parts recovered from the balloon’s wreckage were “inconsistent” with equipment found in weather balloons, the official said.
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The balloon was also found to have Western-made components with English-language writing, Bloomberg reported. However, it is unclear when exactly the writing was discovered — before or after the aircraft was shot down.
Prior to the release of declassified details, several intelligence officials revealed that the balloon was part of a global surveillance program controlled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
On Thursday, the senior State Department official confirmed that the manufacturer of the downed balloon “has a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the PLA.”
Spy airships believed to be from the program have been spotted over five continents since 2018. In the U.S., three sightings were reported during the Trump administration, while one was spotted near the beginning of Biden’s term. Another balloon claimed by China was spotted in the skies above Latin America on Monday. Navy divers quickly retrieved pieces of the balloon, which were then sent to the FBI for investigation. Search and recovery operations continue for electronics located in the payload, which remains in the relatively shallow waters off the coast of South Carolina.
In the meantime, the U.S. is eyeing sanctions against China. According to the senior State Department official:
The United States will also explore taking action against PRC [People’s Republic of China] entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace. 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.