Chinese spy balloon part of larger surveillance program: US intel

Chad Fish via AP
In this photo provided by Chad Fish, a large balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, on Feb. 4, 2023. The balloon was struck by a missile from an F-22 fighter just off Myrtle Beach, fascinating sky-watchers across a populous area known as the Grand Strand for its miles of beaches that draw retirees and vacationers.

The U.S. intelligence community has found that the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday is connected to a larger surveillance program run by Beijing’s government, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson confirmed Wednesday.  

Along with the balloon that traversed U.S. airspace last week, the Defense Department is aware of at least four previous balloons that have flown over U.S. territory, press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.  

“This is what we assess as part of a larger Chinese surveillance balloon program,” Ryder said. “This is a program that’s been operated for several years.” 

The Washington Post first reported on Tuesday that American intelligence agencies linked the Chinese balloon to a wide-reaching surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army and operating partly out of Hainan province off the country’s south coast. 

And on Saturday, senior Pentagon officials hinted at a larger Chinese high altitude surveillance program, pointing to another balloon that was observed transiting Central and South America. 

“These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries,” one senior defense official told reporters. “These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).”  

The official also confirmed that Washington has been briefing allies and partners who have also been the target of such surveillance.  

Ryder on Wednesday said the airships have been seen over five continents and regions including North America, South America, Europe, and southeast and east Asia. 

Several U.S. officials told the Post that the surveillance effort has collected intel on military assets in countries of strategic interest to China including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.  

In the case of the latest balloon, Beijing was looking to “surveil strategic sites to include some of our strategic bases in the continental United States,” Ryder said.  

The Chinese spy balloon has set off a torrent of questions as to how often such flying objects have made their way over U.S. territory and what intelligence the airships have been able to gather.  

At least four balloons have been tracked over Hawaii, Florida, Texas and Guam prior to the one spotted last week, with three such cases happening during the Trump administration. 

In some instances, after a spy balloon had left U.S. airspace, subsequent intelligence analysis led officials to realize the previously unidentified aerial object belonged to the Chinese, Ryder said. 

The balloons, which are not seen as a particularly high-tech mode of spying, do have advantages over satellites as they can fly closer to earth and are not as easily detected by radars. They can also stay longer over a site, as was seen last week.  

Republican lawmakers and some Democrats have since criticized the Biden administration for failing to shoot down the balloon sooner, though the Pentagon has stressed that national security was protected as the object flew over the country for a week before it was shot down.

Ryder said the long period with which the balloon traversed the country allowed the U.S. military to gain more information on the Chinese surveillance program and “apply that information to increase our ability to track these kinds of objects” and defend the skies.  

Tags China Chinese spy balloon Pat Ryder pentagon South Carolina

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