The Chinese Surveillance Balloon Program: What We Know So Far
Featured image: Personnel from Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2, comprising active-duty sailors, reserves, National Guard members, and civilians, retrieved a high-altitude surveillance balloon that had been brought down by U.S. fighter aircraft operating under the authority of U.S. Northern Command. The balloon had been engaged and brought down within U.S. airspace and over U.S. territorial waters on February 4th, 2023. To ensure the safety of the public during the recovery effort, the operation was carried out in collaboration with partners from the Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, and the FBI. (source: US Navy)
According to the Pentagon, the recent shooting down of a Chinese balloon off the South Carolina coast was part of a larger surveillance program that China has been conducting for several years. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, revealed that the U.S. was not able to immediately identify the balloons as Chinese spy balloons when they passed over U.S. territory on four separate occasions during both the Trump and Biden administrations. However, through subsequent intelligence analysis, the U.S. was able to confirm that these balloons were indeed part of a Chinese spy effort and gain further insight into the program.
When asked for more details about the previous balloons, Ryder only stated that they flew over “sites that would be of interest to the Chinese.” It is not clear which of the four incidents he is referring to, as one of them is speculated to have taken place last February.
According to Associated Press, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the adjutant general in Hawaii, had tweeted about a balloon sighting over Kauai a year ago. He reported that the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command detected a high-altitude object floating in the air near the Hawaiian Islands and sent up aircraft to intercept it. They confirmed that it was an unmanned balloon with no identification markings. However, Ryder declined to confirm if this was one of the four previous incidents mentioned by the Pentagon. The Pacific Air Forces, the Air Force command in the Indo-Pacific region, stated that the balloon was not shot down.
The U.S. military shot down a Chinese balloon in the skies over South Carolina last Saturday, which the Pentagon has confirmed was part of China’s large-scale spy program that has been in operation for several years. Despite earlier incidents where similar balloons were spotted over U.S. territory, the U.S. failed to immediately identify them as Chinese surveillance balloons, but subsequent intelligence analysis allowed the U.S. to determine their origin. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon Press Secretary, declined to provide any further details about the previous balloons, only stating that they flew over “sites of interest to the Chinese.”
China, however, claimed that the balloon was a civilian one used for meteorological research and condemned the U.S. for shooting it down. Brig. Gen. Ryder dismissed these claims and assured the public that the balloon was “not for civilian purposes.”
North American Aerospace Defense Command began tracking the balloon as it approached U.S. airspace, and it traveled from the Aleutian Islands to northern Idaho before crossing back into Canadian airspace. Top administration officials, including Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence, and Colin Kahl, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, are briefing members of Congress in classified sessions about China’s balloon surveillance program. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also briefed dozens of countries on the program, which has been active over five continents and has targeted not only the U.S. but other nations as well.
NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg, who is visiting the U.S., spoke about the incident, confirming that it “confirms a pattern of Chinese behavior” and noting China’s investment in military capabilities, including surveillance and intelligence platforms. Stoltenberg emphasized the need for increased vigilance against the constant risk of Chinese intelligence.
As for the recent balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, Navy divers have started retrieving pieces of the wreckage from the ocean floor using reconnaissance drones for further analysis by the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The U.S. State Department has also sent a cable to all U.S. embassies and consulates outlining the administration’s case against China and instructing American diplomats to discuss the issue with their host governments.