The suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down by the U.S. Air Force above the Atlantic Ocean over the weekend was part of a global surveillance program by the Chinese military, according to intelligence officials.
The balloon, which China claimed to be a civilian research airship that was blown off-course, was first spotted in Montana, home to three of the nation’s nuclear missile silos. It traveled across the continental U.S. for days before an F-22 fighter jet blew it to pieces off the coast of South Carolina.
Speaking to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, several intelligence officials confirmed that the balloon was part of a larger surveillance effort operated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The program, based partly in the mainland province of Hainan, has allegedly been harvesting information from countries and territories that are of interest to Beijing, including Taiwan, Japan, India, Vietnam and the Philippines.
It is unknown when the alleged espionage program began, but spy airships believed to be from China have been spotted in five continents since 2018.
Department of Defense Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters Wednesday:
When you look at the scope of this program — operating over at least five continents in regions like Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Europe — again, it demonstrates why, for the Department of Defense, that China remains the pacing challenge and something that we’ll continue to stay focused on..
Ryder also confirmed four previous sightings in the U.S. ahead of last week’s balloon, which was spotted over Latin America. The first three were spotted during the Trump administration, while the last showed up at the beginning of Biden’s term.
Most of China’s surveillance program is reportedly conducted through satellites. However, balloons — which hover between 60,000 and 80,000 feet above the Earth’s surface — allegedly provide an opportunity for spying above the trajectory of commercial jets.
“What the Chinese have done is taken an unbelievably old technology and basically married it with modern communications and observation capabilities”, one official told the Washington Post. “It’s a massive effort.”
The State Department on Monday briefed nearly 150 diplomats from 40 nations about the spy balloon.
It has also shared specifics with countries such as Japan, whose military facilities have been direct targets of the surveillance effort, as per Fox News.
In 2020, an aerial object sighted in the country was believed to be a unidentified flying object, but Japanese people are now realizing it was likely a Chinese spy balloon, a Tokyo official told the Post.
An elite team of FBI engineers at a government laboratory in Quantico, Virgina, is currently studying the remnants of the blown up balloon, according to CNN, which also spoke to anonymous intelligence officials.
They reportedly aim to understand the object’s technical capabilities, including the kind of data it could collect, the satellites it was connected to and any vulnerabilities the U.S. could exploit.
Sources told CNN that the balloons spotted around the world are not exactly similar to the downed aircraft. Instead, there are multiple “variations,” though how they differ remains unclear.
China, for its part, has denied all allegations of spying.
Aside from blaming weather conditions, Beijing cited “limited self-steering capability” as a cause for the supposed aerial blunders — including for the second balloon spotted above the airspaces of Colombia and Costa Rica.
“China is a responsible country,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday. “We have always strictly abided by international law.”