Chinese spy balloon: Everything we know after US recovers wreckage

US sailors recovering the Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon

US sailors recovered part of the Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on 5 February

U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson

US officials say that a huge Chinese balloon shot down last week was indeed designed for spying, according to analysis of the wreckage, and was part of a wider surveillance programme that spans several continents. This is what we know so far.

Where was the balloon wreckage recovered?

The balloon, which had been travelling at an altitude of between 18,000 metres (58,000 feet) and 19,800 metres, was destroyed by a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor jet just off the coast of South Carolina with a single AIM-9X missile. Coast Guard and Navy ships started a recovery attempt in that area, just off North Myrtle Beach, along with the FBI, and they have now recovered some parts.

Recordings from the pilots’ radio as they shot down the balloon show that they saw “metal breaking apart” as it fell. The water in the area is only 15 metres deep, which makes recovery more straightforward, but because it was shot down from a high altitude the bulk of the debris was spread across an area of many square kilometres.

The hunt has involved ships and uncrewed submersibles. At least some debris was collected by 5 February – the day after it was shot down – and images were shared by the US government, but bad weather has hampered recovery efforts.

The FBI is already investigating parts of the once gas-filled canopy, wires and electronics – but the majority of the wreckage is still at the bottom of the sea.

Was the Chinese balloon spying?

An official from China’s Foreign Ministry said that the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research, which had been blown off course because it had “limited self-steering capability”.

However, US officials say the device did have propellers, giving it some ability to navigate, and could also change altitude to catch winds in different directions.

The US officials say the balloon flew over a number of sensitive military sites across the country, including missile silos and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. They insists it was a surveillance mission and that it took measures to stop it collecting data and to observe it using its crewed U2 spy aircraft from above to see what it might be transmitting to Chinese satellites.

The officials said that a second balloon was seen over Central and South America and believe that a third was operating at an undisclosed location. The chance of several balloons being blown off course at once, and the route taken by the one over the US, lends further weight to this being an espionage balloon. Reports have now emerged of potential sightings over Japan in 2020 and 2021 and also over Taipei and India.

How big was China’s spy balloon and what was it carrying?

Pictures taken while the balloon was still flying show that it had a large payload with a scaffold-like structure and solar panels. But details of the type of electronics recovered have been kept under wraps – other than confirmation that it had multiple antennae and sensors.

We do know from US military officials that the balloon itself was around 60 metres in height and that the payload was around the size of a “regional jet” such as the Embraer ERJ, which varies between 26 metres and 30 metres in length. The payload is thought to have weighed around 900 kilograms.

Dan Lomas at Brunel University London says that although the US has publicly disclosed that the balloon did have equipment to collect electronic signals, it isn’t clear what sort of intelligence, or how much, it has collected.

Why would China use spy balloons when it has satellites?

There is precedent for the use of balloons in espionage and warfare. They are thought to have been used for military signalling more than a millennium ago, and a crewed French observation balloon was used at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794.

While we now have spy satellites and powered aircraft, there is still a space for simpler, cheaper and uncrewed balloons, says espionage author and journalist H. I. Sutton.

“Like the US, China has developed many ways to gather intelligence on potential adversaries. Many of these overlap in capabilities, each having pros and cons – that’s why the US still operates the famous U2 spy plane decades after satellites came into use,” he says. “The balloons may also have advantages in the payloads which they can carry. Another factor is that they’re uncrewed. This greatly reduces the political risk of one is publicly detected or shot down.”

Just as the U2 aircraft has a wide range of different sensors and payloads for different missions, a balloon could be adapted to focus on taking images in the visible and non-visible spectrums, passively collecting electronic communications or even probing defences to get more information on their response – then beaming all of that data back via satellites. Some have suggested that the Chinese balloon could have intercepted mobile communications from staff at military bases to scour them for useful intelligence.

What happens next?

Lomas says Chinese intelligence efforts against the US are a constant and serious threat, with information gathered by human sources and cyberattacks leading to a “massive transfer of tech knowledge”, regardless of the use of any satellites, balloons and aircraft.

“The balloon episode is more political, and even the Biden administration has played down the intelligence implications,” he says. “It’s a message to the US that China can, and will, do this. And the episode itself has undermined China-US diplomacy just as the downing of a US U2 spy plane did in 1960.”

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