Diplomats from more than 40 countries were invited to a meeting Wednesday with U.S. government representatives to learn about the Chinese spy balloon shot down by a U.S. fighter jet on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina. President Joe Biden’s administration has communicated to allies that the balloon was part of a larger spy program, which has been underway for some years, which has seen similar airships fly over the skies of various continents and collect potentially strategic intelligence.
The case of the balloon had been made public about a week ago, when the US government announced that it had been spotted flying in US airspace and in particular near military bases. China had claimed and continues to reiterate that it was an airship intended for meteorological studies that ended up off course. In Wednesday’s meeting, the United States brought what it considers evidence to refute this thesis, with the intention of increasing the level of surveillance of the allies and to push China to abandon its espionage program.
According to the United States, spy balloons of Chinese origin have been reported in recent years in the airspaces of Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and other Asian countries. China itself has confirmed that it is the owner of the balloon recently identified in the skies of South America. An increase in espionage towards Europe was also reported at the meeting.
As far as the United States is concerned, a similar spy balloon was identified in February 2022 over the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where a missile base and other military facilities are located: then some American fighters approached the airship, which had no signs of recognition and that it was not shot down because there were no certainties about its origin or its purposes.
China would have sent at least four more spy balloons to American skies in the last six to seven years: they would not have been identified, except when they were now out of US airspace, due to the instrumental limits of military radars. Precisely the success of these flights would have pushed China to the last mission, which lasted much longer than the previous ones: the airship was identified on 28 January over the Aleutian Islands, in the Bering Sea, then flew over Alaska and part of the Canada to re-enter the United States in Idaho and cross them to the coast of South Carolina where it was shot down.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who postponed a visit to China after the balloon crisis erupted, said: “We shared information learned from close observation of the system’s operation when it was in our airspace.” According to shared information, the airship was equipped with solar panels, implying that it needed more energy than a normal weather balloon, and its flight path did not follow the directions of the winds: it was equipped with propellers and rudders.
The Pentagon claims that China already had more than 260 satellites at its disposal for surveillance and espionage activities by the end of 2021, a number that has doubled in three years: these provide visual information thanks to high-resolution cameras and radar detectors and are capable of tracking moving vehicles such as warships.
To this endowment of satellites is added, according to American sources, the spy balloon program, controlled by the Strategic Support Forces of the People’s Liberation Army, a division created by President Xi Jinping in 2015 to modernize the armed forces. Airships can hover over a target for a long time, integrating information from satellites, are less traceable than satellites and are much closer, flying at altitudes of around 60,000 feet (18,000 meters).
In addition to taking photographs from above, the balloons can intercept telephone communications and electronic signals, or accurately detect atmospheric conditions around potential military targets: an accurate detection is crucial for the proper functioning of hypersonic missiles.
– Read also: History of the military use of aerostatic balloons
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