What The Chinese Spy Balloon Was Really Capable Of

Based upon the limited analysis that the FBI has been able to conduct on the destroyed Chinese spy balloon, the agency has been able to determine that it could collect and send information.

By Kari Apted | Updated

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As the military and federal agencies continue to investigate the remains of the Chinese spy balloon shot down last week, speculation still circles over the degree of risk posed by the floating object. Much of the airship remains below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and a State Department official has said the balloon is connected to the Chinese military. Though China has claimed its purpose was benign, images from U-2 flybys showed that it was “capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.”

The senior State Department official spoke to NPR and other reporters on a condition of anonymity on Thursday. The official provided an update on what the government has learned so far about the Chinese spy balloon. It appears that labeling it as a device for spying may be correct.

One significant revelation negated China’s claims that the object was simply a weather balloon that veered off track. Not only was its equipment different from that of known weather balloons, but the manufacturer is an approved vendor of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Consequently, the U.S. is looking into taking action against PLA-linked entities that supported the balloon’s encroachment into U.S. airspace.

The anonymous official also told reporters that the Chinese spy balloon was part of an official fleet of balloons designed to conduct surveillance. China has sent the information-gathering fleet over more than 40 countries and five continents. These countries and the Biden administration are communicating over the balloons whose flights are often directed by the Chinese military.

So far, the FBI has only been able to analyze an extremely limited amount of evidence from the Chinese spy balloon. They have examined materials that were floating on the ocean’s surface, namely, the balloon’s canopy and a small amount of wiring and electronics. It’s assumed that the bulk of the electronics is sitting on the ocean floor.

It’s still early to assess the full intent of the device and how the Chinese spy balloon was operating. China has released statements that the balloon was not operated by the government. Instead, they said it was linked to one or more companies, but declined to name them.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, said the balloon drifted into U.S. airspace by accident and it was an overreaction to shoot it down. “That narrative is probably part of the information and public opinion warfare the U.S. has waged on China. As to who is the world’s number one country of spying, eavesdropping, and surveillance, that is plainly visible to the international community.”

NPR reviewed Chinese state media reports that indicate the Chinese spy balloon is part of the nation’s hypersonic weapons program. Some of the balloons are used to measure weather conditions for missile launches. Other balloons may be used as tools for ground surveillance.

Because the Chinese spy balloon was spotted over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, it gives credence to the assumption that the aircraft was intended to gather intelligence. Malmstrom AFB is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields. However, defense officials have admitted that there is little information that could be obtained by balloon compared to what China is able to learn by satellite.

On Monday, CNBC reported that the Chinese spy balloon was essentially a diplomatic test, according to lawyer Reid Whitten. He said it was clearly sent to “rattle the U.S.’s cage” ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing. Blinken then opted to “indefinitely postpone” visiting China.