United States military officials have admitted that a Chinese spy balloon which infiltrated U.S. air space earlier this year gathered critical intelligence on military assets.
Senior U.S. officials and a former Biden administration official concluded that the balloon, which entered Alaskan airspace in February and idled for days over the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, was able to collect information on electronic signals used by weapons guidance systems. The balloon then relayed data to Beijing in real time.
After several days in the air, the balloon was ordered shot down by the Biden administration. Chinese officials downplayed any connection between the balloon and covert surveillance methods, though the balloon contained a self-destruct mechanism that could be been triggered remotely if its controller chose to do so.
The three officials defended the Biden administration’s efforts to limit information collected by the balloon by moving around a series of potential targets. Official also shut down electronic signals being emitted by the targets.
The Defense Department reiterated to NBC News that any information collected by the balloon was of “limited additive value” and not beyond what China could collect using low-orbiting satellites.
When the balloon was first widely reported on February 2nd, the speed of the balloon was increased as it begin drifting out of U.S. airspace. Chinese officials repeatedly claimed that the balloon was operated by civilians who lost control as it drifted off course. Given the size of the balloon — nearly the length of three school buses — defense officials chose to wait and shoot it down once debris was less likely to cause damage on the ground.
The incident was not the first occasion when spy balloons originating from China made their way into U.S. airspace. Biden administration officials recorded four similar interactions with balloons for a total of two under President Joe Biden and three during President Donald Trump’s time in office.