By Katabella Roberts
Key electronics have been recovered from China’s surveillance balloon that was shot down off the east coast by the U.S. military on Feb. 4, including sensors that are believed to have been used to gather intelligence, U.S. officials have said.
“Crews have been able to recover significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure,” the U.S. Northern Command said in a statement.
The manoeuvrable balloon was shot down by U.S. jets earlier this month after entering U.S. airspace unannounced and being allowed to make its way across the United States to the Atlantic coast, according to defense officials.
The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard personnel then spent days recovering parts of the balloon and other debris from the sea for further analysis.
Beijing insists that the balloon, which flew over sensitive military sights, was merely a civilian meteorological balloon that had been blown off course due to weather-related issues.
Balloon Used to Spy, Washington Says
Washington, however, says it was likely a sophisticated high-altitude spying vehicle conducting surveillance over sensitive U.S. military sights, including nuclear bases in Montana, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), and a base that hosts nuclear bombers in Missouri.
Spying is surveillance without due authorization.
U.S. officials have since shared intelligence with other allied liberal democratic countries about China’s aerial surveillance program, which they say has targeted at least 40 nations across five continents.
China’s ruling communist party has been developing balloons for various military purposes in recent years and U.S. officials, citing an official procurement portal for China’s military, have said that they are confident that the downed balloon has a direct relationship with China’s military and is an approved vendor of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
According to a statement from a senior State Department official, the balloon was furnished with high-tech equipment and “multiple antennas” as well as other equipment that was “clearly for intelligence surveillance” and was “likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications.”
Since the balloon was shot down six miles off the coast of South Carolina, U.S. forces have taken down three more smaller flying objects–one over Alaska, one over Canada’s Yukon territory, and another over Lake Huron, Michigan, on the U.S.-Canada border–in recent days.
However, authorities have not yet identified the origin of those objects or their function. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton told reporters on Feb. 12 that a number of high-altitude objects are often used by various countries or companies for legitimate research.
Beijing Responds Claiming US Sent Balloons Into China
The rise in the number of high-altitude objects recently detected in U.S. airspace is due, in part, to the government enhancing its radar systems, Dalton said.
“In light of the People’s Republic of China balloon that we took down last Saturday, we have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we detected over the past week.”
Following the downing of the balloon, the U.S. placed economic restrictions on six Chinese entities it said have aided Beijing’s “aerospace programs including airships and balloons and related materials and components”.
Under those restrictions, U.S. companies will be unable to sell products and technologies to the firms without first getting government approval.
The blacklisted companies are: Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology; China Electronics Technology Group Corp. 48th Research Institute; Dongguan Lingkong Remote Sensing Technology; Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group and its Shanxi branch; Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group; and Guangzhou Tian-Hai-Xiang Aviation Technology.
Elsewhere, amid increasingly strained tensions between Beijing’s comrades and the U.S.’s allies, China on Monday claimed that 10 U.S. high-altitude balloons have flown into its territory throughout the past year without its permission.
That claim has been called “false” by U.S. officials.
Reuters contributed to this report.