The Pentagon on Wednesday released imagery of a U-2 spy plane soaring over the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that transited the mainland United States this month, providing a new glimpse of the information U.S. officials gathered about the craft before shooting it down over the Atlantic Ocean.
The image shows an Air Force pilot, clad in a pressurized suit and helmet, maneuvering the aircraft as the balloon passes below. Large solar panels attached to the airship appear to be visible, with equipment strung from a canopy that U.S. military officials have described as 200 feet tall. The craft’s payload was estimated to be the size of two to three buses.
Air Force officials said the photograph was captured Feb. 3 over the “Central Continental United States.” A day later, the airship moved off the coast of South Carolina and was shot down by a Sidewinder missile launched from an F-22 Raptor fighter jet.
The photo was published Tuesday on the website Dragon Lady Today, a site devoted to the U-2 and its history. A Pentagon spokesperson, Sabrina Singh, confirmed that the image was authentic during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, and the Defense Department released it publicly about an hour later.
The single-engine U-2 was used extensively during the Cold War. With a distinctive narrow wingspan stretching 105 feet, it has been used to photograph Soviet nuclear complexes, observe Islamic State compounds in the Middle East and conduct surveillance missions over Ukraine just before Russia’s invasion last year.
The Chinese balloon initially appeared off the coast of mainland Alaska on Jan. 28 before moving over the state and into Canadian airspace. It surfaced over northern Idaho on Jan. 31 and was observed by civilians over Montana on Feb. 1. Defense officials scrambled for jets and considered shooting it down then, but they decided it was safer to bring it down off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
U.S. officials first publicly acknowledged the balloon’s presence over the United States on Feb. 2, alleging that it was part of a Chinese surveillance program. Beijing, in response, said that the balloon was conducting meteorological research, not spying, and that its path over North America was an unintended consequence of having been blown off course.
The incident has further strained relations between the world powers, with each side openly chastising the other, and it created enormous political blowback for President Biden. Democrats and Republicans have sharply criticized his decision not to down the balloon as soon as it first detected in North American airspace. The Pentagon has said the delay enabled it to soak up valuable intelligence about the technology.
The administration has since declassified more information about Beijing’s suspected surveillance activities globally. One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issue remains highly sensitive, said this month that photos taken by the U-2 showed the airship was capable of intercepting electronic signals and far exceeded the capabilities of a weather balloon.
After the shoot-down Feb. 4, the senior military commander responsible for safeguarding North American airspace, Gen. Glen VanHerck, acknowledged that the detection of the balloon and the information gathered about it led to a belated realization that similar airships had appeared in U.S. airspace before. He characterized the military’s prior inability to detect such incursions as a “domain awareness gap” and said adjustments would need to be made.
U.S. fighter aircraft were scrambled to respond to subsequent unidentified objects spotted between Feb. 9 and 12. Three more items were shot down, including one off the North Slope of Alaska, one over Canada’s Yukon territory and another over Lake Huron.
No shoot-downs have occurred again, and Biden has since drawn a distinction between the first balloon and the other three objects, describing the latter as “most likely tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions.”
Searches for the latter three objects have been called off without the U.S. government recovering any debris. A recovery effort for debris from the suspected surveillance balloon has concluded with Navy personnel pulling equipment from relatively shallow waters in the Atlantic and shipping it to an FBI laboratory in Virginia.
John Hudson contributed to this report.