Chinese Balloon Had Tools to Collect Communications Signals, U.S. Says

WASHINGTON — 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 Thursday.

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 the U.S. government was “confident” that the company that made the balloon had direct commercial ties with the People’s Liberation Army, 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.”

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaking on the Chinese surveillance balloon program and gave an update on the recovery of the balloon that was recently shot down in American airspace.Credit…Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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.

The Chinese Spy Balloon Showdown

The discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the United States has added to the rising tensions between the two superpowers.

  • A Diplomatic Crisis: How did a Chinese balloon end up triggering a high-stakes dispute between Washington and Beijing? “The Daily” takes a look at the tense saga.
  • China Plays Down Dispute: Beijing is deploying its propaganda apparatus to ensure that the balloon avoids becoming not only an international headache but a domestic one, too.
  • Investment Restrictions: Amid growing concerns about Beijing’s military and economic ambitions, the Biden administration is preparing new rules that would restrict U.S. dollars from flowing to China.
  • Previous Incursions: This was not the first spy balloon from China to be detected passing over the United States. A top military commander said that, during the Trump administration, some balloons were initially classified as “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or U.F.O.s.

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.

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.

The presence of the balloon in the United States last week ignited a diplomatic crisis and prompted Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to Beijing, where he had been expected to meet President Xi Jinping of China. Mr. Blinken said the balloon had violated U.S. sovereignty and was “an irresponsible act” by China.

After a U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon on Saturday, the Chinese government said the United States had overreacted and violated international convention, and that China had “the right to respond further.”

The Chinese government also said the balloon belonged to China and should not be kept by the United States.

The U.S. government says it has discovered instances of at least five Chinese spy balloons in American territory — three during the Trump administration and two during the Biden administration. The spy balloons observed during the Trump administration were initially classified as unidentified aerial phenomena, U.S. officials said. It was not until after 2020 that officials closely examined the balloon incidents under a broader review of aerial phenomena and determined that they were part of the Chinese global balloon surveillance effort.

Divers from the U.S. Navy have pulled debris from the downed balloon out of the shallow waters off the South Carolina coast. They are examining the parts to see if the Chinese military or enterprises with ties to it are using technology from American or other Western companies, U.S. officials said.

The discovery of any such technology could spur the Biden administration to take harsher actions to ensure that companies do not export technology to China that can be used by the country’s military and security agencies.

President Biden and his aides have already imposed broad limits on the sales of what they call “foundational technologies” to China. Most notably, the U.S. government announced last October that it was barring American companies from selling advanced semiconductor chips and certain chip manufacturing technology to China. The new rules are also aimed at preventing foreign companies from doing the same.

The aim of the export controls is to cripple China’s development of advanced technologies, particularly tools used by the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army. Mr. Biden has stressed the importance of maintaining independent supply chains in critical sectors, and he highlighted that policy drive in his State of the Union speech in Congress on Tuesday.

U.S. officials said they expect that the debris from the spy balloon will give them some insight into how Chinese engineers are putting together surveillance technology.

“There is an ongoing operation to recover the balloon’s components,” Mr. Blinken, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We’re analyzing them to learn more about the surveillance program. We will pair that with what we learn from the balloon — what we learn from the balloon itself — with what we’ve gleaned based on our careful observation of the system when it was in our airspace, as the president directed his team to do.”

The State Department began a campaign this week to inform other countries of China’s balloon surveillance program. It has sent information on the program to its embassies and directed diplomats abroad to meet with officials in their host countries. U.S. diplomats in Washington are also talking to foreign counterparts in that city.

U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that China’s spy balloon program is part of a global surveillance effort designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world. With the flights, Chinese officials are trying to hone their ability to gather data about American military bases — in which it is most interested — as well as those of other nations in the event of a conflict or rising tensions, U.S. officials say. They add that the program has operated out of multiple locations in China.

China’s National University of Defense Technology has a team of researchers studying advances in balloons. And as early as 2020, People’s Liberation Army Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese military, published an article describing how near space “has become a new battleground in modern warfare.” In recent years, the paper has been telling its officer readers in sometimes hyperbolic language to take balloons seriously.

The balloons have some advantages over the intelligence-gathering satellites that orbit the earth in regular patterns, U.S. officials say.

They fly closer to earth and drift with wind patterns, which are not as predictable to militaries and intelligence agencies as the fixed orbits of satellites, and they can evade radar. They can also hover over areas, while satellites are generally in constant motion. Simple cameras on balloons can produce clearer images than those on orbital satellites, and other surveillance equipment can pick up signals that do not reach the altitude of satellites.

Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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