The US military and intelligence community had been tracking the Chinese spy balloon since it launched from a base on Hainan Island near the southern coast of China — and officials are now looking into the possibility that it may have drifted off course, according to a report.
US officials told the Washington Post on Tuesday that the balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month had been monitored for nearly a week before it penetrated US airspace, and that it initially appeared that the surveillance balloon was heading toward Guam before it took an unexpected turn to the north.
Intelligence analysts are not sure whether the balloon’s sharp turn north was intentional or accidental, but believe the surveillance craft was likely on its way to spy on US military installations in the Pacific before its path suddenly shifted.
The balloon wound up floating over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and then entered Canada before strong winds appear to have pushed it south into the continental US on Jan. 31, the officials told the Washington Post, adding that analysts are examining the possibility that China didn’t intentionally direct the spy craft to penetrate the US mainland.
However, once it crossed the US border with Canada, US officials say Beijing took advantage of the opportunity to gather intelligence and directed the craft to loiter over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, which houses one-third of the country’s land-based nuclear missile arsenal.
As the balloon hovered over the Big Sky State on Feb. 1, it was spotted by civilians.
A senior US official told the Washington Post that China’s balloon surveillance program seems to be meant to “augment the satellite systems” the communist country has in place, and that it is “part of a larger set of programs that are about gaining greater clarity about military facilities in the United States and in a variety of other countries.”
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force was tasked with launching the balloon from Hainan Island, according to the report. The craft was outfitted with propellers and a rudder, allowing for some maneuverability, but it was partly directed by air currents, the news outlet said.
A US official told the Washington Post that the downed balloon’s payload, described as the size of three school buses, has still not been analyzed but that “it doesn’t look like it’s a dramatic new capability.”
“It looks like it’s more collection — everybody always wants more,” the official said.
US intelligence officials do not believe that three other objects shot down over the weekend by US military aircraft were tied to China’s spy balloon program, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that “the intelligence community is considering as a leading explanation that these could be tied to commercial or research entities and benign.”
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