Chinese balloon had tools to collect communications signals, U.S. State Department says

February 10, 2023

The Chinese spy balloon shot down by the U.S. military over the Atlantic Ocean was capable of collecting communications signals and was part of a fleet of surveillance balloons directed by the Chinese military that had flown over more than 40 countries across five continents, the State Department said on Thursday, February 9, reports The New York Times.

The United States used high resolution imagery from U-2 flybys to determine the balloon’s capabilities, the department said in a written announcement, adding that the balloon’s equipment “was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons.”

The agency said the balloon had multiple antennas in an array that was “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications.” Solar panels on the machine were large enough to produce power to operate “multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” the department said.

The agency also said that the U.S. government was “confident” that the company that made the balloon had direct commercial ties with the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) , the Chinese military, citing an official procurement portal for the army. The department did not name the company.

“The United States will also explore taking action against P.R.C. entities linked to the P.L.A. that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace,” the State Department said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the P.R.C.’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners.”

The department said the company advertises balloon products on its website and has posted videos from past flights that apparently flew over U.S. airspace and the airspace of other nations. The videos show balloons that have similar flight patterns as the surveillance balloons that the United States has been discussing this week, the agency said.

American officials do not know exactly what kinds of communications the satellite was trying to collect and have not determined what sites the balloon was targeting, U.S. officials say.

Officials say they took steps at nuclear launch sites and other military bases to try to ensure there was no useful information that the balloon could collect. The U.S. government also took steps to protect official communications in the balloon’s path. While officials say they are confident the balloon did not get any sensitive data on U.S. nuclear sites, they are unsure what it did collect.

It would be relatively easy for signals-collection devices to get data on what mobile phones are in use around a military base, current and former officials say.

Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, told a Senate committee on Thursday that the spy balloon episode “put on full display what we’ve long recognized—the P.R.C. has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.”

U.S. officials say the Biden Administration has declassified information it has gathered on the balloon that traversed the United States last week and the Chinese military’s broader balloon surveillance operations in order to inform the American public and allied and partner nations of China’s espionage activities. The administration is hopeful the intelligence will counter China’s narrative of the balloon and put pressure on its government to curb some of its aerial surveillance, the U.S. officials say.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said last Friday, after the Pentagon announced it had discovered the spy balloon hovering over Montana, that the balloon was a civilian machine from China mainly used for weather research, and that it had regrettably drifted off course. It also said a second balloon, which the Pentagon asserted was a surveillance machine drifting at the time over Latin America, was mainly used for weather research.

Research contact: @nytimes