Washington, DC – The United States has released new details about the alleged Chinese “spy” balloon that flew over the country last week, saying the aircraft was “clearly” used to gather intelligence.
The balloon, which was shot down by US forces over the Atlantic Ocean after traversing the continental US, was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations”, a US Department of State official said on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
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Washington also again refuted Beijing’s claim that the balloon was used for meteorological research and had deviated off its course into US airspace.
“The high altitude balloon’s equipment was clearly for intelligence surveillance and inconsistent with the equipment onboard weather balloons,” the US official said in a written statement.
“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.”
China has condemned the shooting down of the balloon, which it said was an “unmanned civilian airship”.
But the Department of State official said the aircraft is part of a Chinese surveillance programme, adding that such balloons have flown “over more than 40 countries across 5 continents”.
The official said the balloon’s manufacturer has a “direct relationship” with the Chinese military, without identifying the company.
“The United States will also explore taking action against PRC [People’s Republic of China] entities linked to the [Chinese military] that supported the balloon’s incursion into US airspace,” the official said.
“We will also look at broader efforts to expose and address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security, and to our allies and partners.”
During a regular news conference on Thursday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning said she was “not aware of the balloons being part of a fleet, as the US believes. I think this may be part of the US’s information warfare against China.”
Mao reiterated that the balloon’s entry into US airspace was “unintended” and “unexpected”, adding that “the Chinese side has made that clear in its communication with the US side time and again, yet the US overreacted by using force”.
“China firmly opposes and deplores this,” she said.
The incident has started a fight between the US and China amid already intensifying competition between the two superpowers.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over numerous points of tension in recent years, including trade issues, the status of Taiwan, China’s claims in the South China Sea and a continuing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The US also has been warning China against coming to Russia’s aid in Ukraine.
In the US, the balloon also spurred criticism – mostly from Republicans – against President Joe Biden for not ordering the military to shoot the device down earlier.
Biden has said his administration is not seeking confrontation with China but warned Beijing against threatening US sovereignty.
“As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country — and we did,” the US president said during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
US defence officials also have defended the decision to allow the balloon to fly over the country for days before shooting it down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.
Pentagon official Melissa Dalton told lawmakers on Capitol Hill during a briefing on Thursday that downing the balloon over water allowed the US to observe it in action, minimised the risk of debris hitting civilians on the ground, and improved prospects of recovering assets from the aircraft.
She said the balloon was 60m (200 ft) tall “with a jetliner size payload”.
“The PRC’s irresponsible actions were visible for the American people and all of the world to see,” Dalton said.
“Ultimately, we were able to collect intelligence from the balloon; we are recovering its contents; and we sent a clear message to the PRC that activities such as this [are] unacceptable.”