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.”
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.
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.”
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