The Chinese spy balloon recently shot down by the U.S. Air Force is just one component of a massive military surveillance campaign that operates out of a strategic military base and has completed “dozens” of missions.
The U.S. State Department has begun briefing relevant partners on what U.S. intelligence agencies have retroactively identified as a concerted effort by the People’s Liberation Army to deploy balloons for espionage purposes, officials familiar with the matter told the Washington Post.
Beijing’s spy balloons have collected information about military assets in Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, as well as the U.S., the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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“What the Chinese have done is taken an unbelievably old technology, and basically married it with modern communications and observation capabilities,” one official told the Post. “It’s a massive effort.”
China already spies on adversaries through a vast constellation of satellites, but the country’s military planners have found cause to build a fleet of surveillance balloons that can traverse the globe at altitudes upwards of 60,000 feet, officials told the Post.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has orchestrated “dozens” of missions since 2018, the officials added, although they could not determine the exact number of balloons China’s military has or continues to operate.
Separately, officials confirmed to the Post that the balloon intercepted off the Hawaiian coast in 2022 and another spotted above Japan in 2020 were likely part of the spying campaign.
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The Department of Defense previously revealed that surveillance balloons had been spotted in several countries across five continents, but did not specify when intelligence agencies picked up on the balloons and their possible use in surveillance of strategic sites.
In hindsight, intelligence agencies attributed airships that previously escaped unidentified to China, officials told the Post. Some of those balloons circumnavigated the globe.
U.S. agencies have collected information about the balloons, garnering insight into the technology and capabilities China is able to employ against adversaries, the Post reported. Some craft have electrooptical sensors or digital cameras that can capture incredibly detailed images, while others possess radio signal and satellite transmission capabilities, officials told the outlet.
The balloons deploy out of at least one location — Hainan, China, a southern coastal island that hosts several PLA bases, the Post reported.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman briefed roughly 150 personnel staffing 40 embassies about China’s balloon spying campaign on Monday, a senior administration official said, according to the Post. U.S. embassies around the globe have received “detailed information” on how to communicate U.S. knowledge of the program to allies.
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That includes countries whose military assets garnered heightened attention from Beijing, according to a separate senior administration official. “Many of them recognize that they, too, may be vulnerable or susceptible to this or an object of interest to the PRC,” the official added.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said again on Tuesday the most recent balloon was a weather collection craft blown off course, a claim Pentagon officials have denied.
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