WASHINGTON — American intelligence agencies have assessed that China’s spy balloon program is part of a global surveillance effort that is designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world, according to three American officials.
The balloon flights, some officials believe, are part of an effort by China to hone its 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.
The balloons have some advantages over the 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.
American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said that intelligence agencies during the Biden administration had developed a far deeper understanding of the scope and size of the Chinese spy balloon effort, discovering earlier incursions that had been classified as unknown events and tracking new operations by the Chinese spy balloons.
However, U.S. officials said most of the previous observations of the surveillance balloons had been short. The latest spy balloon’s transit across the United States last week gave the U.S. military and intelligence agencies a long period of time to study the capabilities of the surveillance equipment attached to it. Officials said their knowledge of what China was capable of collecting from their balloon program has increased dramatically.
Before last week, the United States had tracked Chinese surveillance balloons collecting information from more than a dozen countries around the world, officials said. Some of the Chinese efforts appeared to be focused on the Pacific region, and a number of the balloons and other Chinese surveillance efforts have been detected over U.S. allies and partners in that region. Biden administration officials said the Chinese balloons have appeared over five continents — including over countries in Europe, East Asia, South Asia, North America and Latin America — in recent years.
The New York Times reported Saturday that a classified intelligence report given to Congress last month highlighted at least two instances of a foreign power using advanced technology for aerial surveillance over American military bases, one inside the continental United States and the other overseas. The research suggested China was the foreign power, U.S. officials said. The report also discussed surveillance balloons.
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In the United States, at least five spy balloons have been observed — three during the Trump administration and two during the Biden administration. The spy balloons observed in 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 the incidents were part of the Chinese global balloon surveillance effort.
Administration officials said over the weekend that the balloon that transited the United States last week was part of a larger Chinese surveillance effort. U.S. officials told The New York Times this week that the balloon program has operated out of multiple locations in China. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the program had operated partly out of the islands of Hainan province off China’s south coast.
While assessments differ of what the Chinese surveillance balloons can collect, many officials believe Chinese satellites are generally as capable of image collection as a satellite. But the balloons can linger longer over a site, and potentially collect multiple forms of intelligence, although officials have not described what they know about the balloons’ collection ability.
The State Department has begun a campaign this week to divulge details of China’s spy balloon program to allied and partner governments, to make them aware of the extent of Chinese aerial espionage efforts so that they can push back on Beijing’s efforts. Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, briefed U.S. diplomats abroad on the balloon program in a video conference on Monday and is preparing to speak publicly to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, officials said.
U.S. diplomats abroad are setting up meetings in their host countries to inform governments of the surveillance program, officials said.
The State Department briefings to foreign officials are designed to show that the balloons are equipped for intelligence gathering and that the Chinese military has been doing it for years, targeting, among other sites, the territories of Japan, Taiwan, India and the Philippines. U.S. diplomats seek to prove to other governments that China’s methods are violating the sovereign airspace of numerous countries, even as Chinese officials continue to insist that the two balloons seen last week over the United States and Latin America were innocent civilian machines.
“China has taken a ham-fisted approach to public information management,” said Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The moment they issued the statement of regret, they should have stopped there. Their lies that this was a civilian weather balloon made things worse.”
David Pierson contributed reporting from Singapore.