The Chinese government has flown its fleet of spy balloons “over more than 40 countries across five continents,” according to a senior State Department official.
The official said Thursday that U.S. agencies have determined the balloons are “clearly for intelligence surveillance,” pushing back against denials by Chinese officials who claim the devices are used only for gathering information on weather patterns.
The State Department comments follow assertions by U.S. intelligence officials that the Chinese spy balloon program is designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world, according to a report this week by The New York Times.
The balloon shot down by a U.S. fighter jet last week first flew over Montana, which is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, where one of the military’s three nuclear missile silo fields is located.
The senior State Department official, who gave comments to reporters on condition of anonymity Thursday, said imagery from American U-2 spy plane “flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.”
“The high altitude balloons’ equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons,” the official said. “It had multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications.”
“It was equipped with solar panels large enough to produce the requisite power to operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors,” the official said.
The official also said U.S. agencies have determined the Chinese spy balloons are consistent with activities overseen by the Chinese military.
“We are confident that the balloon manufacturer has a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the [People’s Liberation Army],” the official said.