U.S. intel says Chinese balloon part of vast aerial surveillance program


The U.S. intelligence community has linked the downed Chinese spy balloon on Saturday to an extensive surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army, and U.S. officials have begun briefing allies and partners on similar missions. has been targeted.

The surveillance balloon effort, which has worked for Partly out of Hainan province on China’s southern coast for several years, several U.S. officials have said about military assets in countries and regions of emerging strategic interest to China, including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. The information gathered, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The surveillance planes, operated by the PLA Air Force, have been spotted on five continents, officials have said.

“What the Chinese have done is take incredibly old technology, and basically marry it with advanced communications and surveillance capabilities” to provide intelligence on other nations’ militaries, one official said. Can try to get. “It’s a big effort.”

A US fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Monday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led a briefing on China’s balloon spying for about 150 people from about 40 embassies, a senior administration official familiar with the matter said. The department also sent each US embassy a “detailed information” about the spying that could be shared with allies and partners.

In addition, US officials have begun sharing details with officials in countries such as Japan whose military installations have been targeted by Beijing.

“There has been a lot of interest from our allies and partners,” a senior administration official said.

“Many of them recognize that they too may be subject to interest from it or the PRC,” the official said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

In Japan in 2020, a space shuttle is speculated. “Some people thought it was a UFO,” said a Japanese official. “People in the dark are thinking it was a Chinese spy balloon. But at the time it was purely novel — no one had seen it. … So there’s a lot of attention at the moment.

While most of China’s long-range surveillance efforts are carried out through its expanded military satellite array, PLA planners have pointed out that they can be used at altitudes above the upper atmosphere where commercial jets can fly. Aircraft fly by, using the 60,000 flying balloons as an opportunity to observe. and 80,000 feet or more, officials said.

Analysts do not yet know the size of the balloon fleet, but “dozens” of missions have been carried out since 2018, a US official said. They benefit from technology provided by a private Chinese company that is part of the country’s civil-military fusion effort — a program through which private companies develop technologies and capabilities used by the PLA.

At a news briefing Saturday, senior Pentagon officials pointed to the PLA program, saying the balloons were operating elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. “These balloons are part of the PRC’s fleet of balloons designed for surveillance operations, which also violate the sovereignty of other countries,” said a senior defense official.

The official flatly rejected China’s claim that the aircraft was a weather balloon that flew over the United States. “This is wrong,” the official said. “This was a PRC surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon deliberately crossed the US and Canada. And we believe it was trying to monitor sensitive military locations.

Some observers have criticized the Chinese effort, noting that the balloons are not the most high-tech of platforms. But others caution against dismissing the balloon’s potential.

“For those who take a serious view of the balloon’s actual intelligence-gathering capabilities, I think they’re underestimating the creative ways that the PLA can use it for intelligence and surveillance purposes or as weapons. can use as a platform.” Michael Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of the China Select Committee, who was commenting on public comments by Pentagon officials over the weekend.

In recent years, at least four balloons have been spotted over Hawaii, Florida, Texas and Guam – in addition to the one tracked last week. Three of the four incidents occurred during the Trump administration but were only recently identified as Chinese surveillance aircraft. Other balloons have been spotted in Latin America and the Pacific Rim, officials said.

President Biden directed that all sensitive locations be protected from spying, “which was straightforward because we could track the path of the balloon and make sure there was no sensitive activity or unencrypted activity around it.” There will be no communications,” said John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator for the National Security Council. . “At the same time, we turned the tables on China and gathered against the balloon, so we could learn more about China’s capabilities and commercial craft.”

Officials said recent balloon sightings helped fill in the gaps about four others. The US military sent fighter jets and other aircraft last week to observe the aircraft. A Chinese spy balloon that crashed over the Hawaiian Islands last June also yielded useful information, including about the nature of the technology China is using, he said.

For example, some balloons are equipped with electro-optical sensors or digital cameras that can capture highly accurate images depending on their resolution. They are also equipped with radio signal and satellite transmission capability, he said.

Hainan, one of the locations where officials said the balloons were located, is an island off China’s southern coast that has long been the PLA’s command and control location. Although better known for its naval facility, it has an airport that was the home base of a Chinese J-8 interceptor fighter jet that crashed in 2001 with a US EP-3 spy plane.

In January, the U.S. military disclosed what it characterized as an unsafe maneuver by a Chinese fighter jet in December that U.S. military officials said had intercepted a U.S. military aircraft in international airspace near the island. The spy plane flew very close. The Chinese J-11 fighter jet pulled within 20 feet of the American plane’s nose, “forcing the RC-135 to take absurd maneuvers to avoid a collision,” the US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.

The spy balloon entered US airspace over Alaska on Saturday, January 28. It passed north of the Aleutian Islands, back over mainland Alaska, Canada and then over northern Idaho, but the Pentagon did not acknowledge its presence until NBC. News reported last Thursday that the Pentagon was tracking the balloon over Montana.

The ensuing political uproar — some Republicans criticized the Biden administration for not shooting down the balloon sooner — led Secretary of State Anthony Blanken to postpone his trip to Beijing, an announcement just hours before his plane took off. was done before.

According to U.S. officials, U.S. intelligence analysts have previously identified as spy balloon objects that were previously thought to be unidentified. New technologies have enabled the detection of measurement and signature intelligence, or MASINT, which typically includes information about Radar or electromagnetic signals, such as those emitted by surveillance balloons.

In some cases, the military and intelligence communities have been able to say they originated in specific countries, including China, officials said.

The earlier discovery of the Chinese balloons helps explain why top defense officials serving in the Trump administration were not aware of the intrusions while in office, officials said.

China has made significant use of balloons to monitor targets on the ground, officials said. Balloons often don’t use the latest technology – in most cases, the sensors don’t capture more information than China can get from satellites.

But balloons offer some advantages. They can stay above a target for hours, while satellites orbiting the Earth only have a few minutes to photograph their target. “If you have a balloon that’s moving extremely. Gradually you have persistence that you can’t get from satellites,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charlie “Tuna” Moore, a former fighter pilot who helped run operations out of NORAD and the U.S. Cyber ​​Command in October. Retired as Deputy of .

Analysts believe the balloons, like drones, could be piloted remotely — at speeds of about 30 to 60 miles per hour, an official said. And because balloons float with winds at high altitudes, their paths are less predictable and thus more difficult to track. Balloons are also much cheaper to manufacture and launch than space satellites.

Some of the balloons were released from China on flight paths that took them around the world, officials said.

Officials noted that China’s foreign ministry was apparently surprised and saddened to see Blanken cancel his visit. The ministry initially released a statement, saying China “regrets that the aircraft entered the United States by mistake.” Since then, Beijing has been reaching out to its neighbors to keep the lines of communication open amid the escalating crisis — a sign, a Pacific official said, that Beijing was embarrassed by the balloon flight across the US. And trying to end this conflict.

In a statement over the weekend, a Foreign Ministry spokesman called for a “cool and sober” attitude towards the incident.

A US official said there was “no sense” that the balloon’s incursion into continental US airspace on the eve of Blinken’s visit was a deliberate provocation. But, the person added, “we believe it was a purposeful global program.”

“China’s foreign policy is a constant search for leverage and there are plenty of opportunities in most situations,” the official said. “In that, very few will show up. So when the Chinese appeal to calm and cool, you can be sure they’re out of options.”

Kate Caddell and Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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