The State Department on Thursday released details about China’s high-altitude balloon surveillance program, declassifying information collected by U.S. U-2 spy planes and other sources to expose what the Biden administration is calling a sophisticated effort to surveil “more than 40 countries across five continents.”
Much of the information released by the State Department was revealed earlier this week by The Washington Post, but its wider publication to the media suggested an effort by the U.S. government to name and shame Beijing’s surveillance tactics after its balloon was shot down Saturday off the coast of South Carolina.
An official said high-resolution imagery captured during the U-2 flybys revealed that the airship was capable of signals intelligence operations far beyond the abilities of a weather balloon, boasting “multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications.” Signals intelligence is a form of spycraft involving the interception of communications or electronic signals to gain valuable information.
The State Department affirmed that China’s balloon spy operations are carried out by the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, using technology manufactured by a firm that has a direct relationship with China’s military.
“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 State Department said in a statement. “These advertised balloon videos seemingly have similar flight patterns as the balloons we have been discussing this week.”
Thursday’s disclosure indicates an eagerness by the Biden administration to elevate China’s balloon espionage despite warnings from China’s Foreign Ministry that doing so could jeopardize bilateral relations. “Exaggerating or hyping up the ‘China threat’ narrative is not conducive to building trust or improving ties between our two countries,” Mao Ning, a ministry spokesperson said Wednesday, “nor can it make the U.S. safer.”
U.S. officials have insisted that it was China’s “irresponsible” violation of U.S. sovereignty that hurt bilateral ties. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off a trip to China on Friday, just hours before he was scheduled to depart, because of the balloon incursion.
After a U.S. F-22 fighter jet took down the balloon Saturday, Beijing called the move an overreaction and said it reserved the right to “respond further.”
The incident underscored the fragility of U.S.-China ties. The very purpose of Blinken’s trip was to figure out how the United States and China can manage incidents such as last week’s balloon incursion. Even as Blinken expressed an interest in rescheduling the trip, rhetoric between the two powers suggests it may take longer than anticipated.
Fallout at home has been equally fraught. During Thursday’s Senate hearing, Republicans and Democrats alike pressed defense officials about the military’s decision-making when the Chinese airship was first observed off the coast of Alaska on Jan. 28, asking why commanders did not move quickly to shoot it down then.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), whose state was an early flyover stop on the balloon’s journey across much of the continental United States, said “the truth is we think we knew what they were going to collect,” but that “we don’t know” for certain.
“And that scares the hell out of me,” Tester said. “I don’t want a damn balloon going over the United States when we could have taken it down over the Aleutian Islands.”
Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base and a number of nuclear missile silos. Officials have said the balloon was detected near those facilities.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told defense officials that she was livid. “Alaska,” Murkowski said, “is the first line of defense for America. … At what point do we say a … spy balloon coming from China is a threat to our sovereignty? It should be the moment it crosses the line. And that line is Alaska.”
Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, a senior officer on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, counseled the lawmakers that caution in this instance was wise, saying, “Once you take a shot, you can’t get it back.” Asked by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) why, if there was an opportunity to shoot down the balloon over Alaskan airspace, it was not taken, Sims echoed earlier statements made by Defense Department officials who have claimed the airship did not show hostile intent and that the military was able to gather valuable information by not reacting immediately.
Melissa Dalton, a top Pentagon official focused on homeland defense, said that another factor in deciding where to shoot down the balloon was how easily it could be recovered. Water depth off the coast of the Aleutian Islands goes quickly from 150 feet to more than 18,000 feet, and water temperatures hover just above 30 degrees, she said. Ice cover in the northern Bering Sea presented another concern, she said.
Sims, asked by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) how long it might take to determine what kind of damage the United States may have suffered by allowing the surveillance flight, said that efforts to recover the craft’s wreckage are ongoing.
Photographs released by the U.S. military show that a big portion of the balloon canopy was recovered Sunday. Its main structure splashed down into water that is about 50 feet deep. U.S. Navy vessels, including an oceanographic ship capable of mapping the ocean’s shore and unmanned underwater craft, are involved in the response.
The FBI has sent evidence response teams to the site, including some divers, but so far they have retrieved “extremely limited” evidence — only what was on the ocean’s surface, said a senior FBI official familiar with the recovery operation. The material, which was transported to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., late Monday, included the balloon’s canopy, some wiring and “a very small amount of electronics,” the official said on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the bureau.
“It’s very early for us to assess what the intent was and how the device is operating,” the official said. “We have literally not seen the payload, which is where we would expect to see the lion’s share of the electronics.”
FBI officials described the debris field as “large-scale,” much of it on the ocean bottom. Retrieving the material and transporting it to the lab can take a long time, and could be compounded by the weather, they said.
China’s surveillance technology is “not the type of equipment you’d expect on a balloon conducting a meteorological mission,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charlie “Tuna” Moore, a former fighter pilot who helped run operations out of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and is familiar with aerial surveillance equipment.
Without knowing exactly what the Chinese were collecting, he said, “I would imagine they would be interested in collecting emissions or signals coming off a variety of systems” that can be analyzed for vulnerabilities. “They’d pull those signals apart and look for vulnerabilities or ways to tap into them on a more permanent basis,” said Moore, now a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. “Building a picture of our radar, weapon system and communication capabilities and those of our allies is the whole point.”
The Defense Department has acknowledged that the craft shot down Saturday marked at least the fifth time in recent years that Beijing has breached the nation’s airspace using such technology. Officials informed lawmakers over the weekend that there had been similar breaches near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam, some dating to Donald Trump’s presidency. China’s broader surveillance efforts have targeted military assets in countries including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Citing U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation, The Post reported earlier this week that some of China’s balloons were outfitted with electrooptical sensors or digital cameras that, depending on their resolution, can capture highly precise images, and with radio signal and satellite transmission capability. The Post also reported Saturday that the program involved a company that supplies the PLA as part of China’s civil military fusion program.
More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada
The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.
The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.
The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.
Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.