The Chinese balloon that traveled across the United States last week before it was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean had both antennas to collect communications and solar panels to power its sensors, a State Department official said Thursday.
The official said the balloon could collect communications signals and was part of a widespread operation from the Chinese military to conduct spying on more than 40 countries across five continents.
“We know these balloons are all part of a [People’s Republic of China] fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations,” they said.
The official said that high-resolution images that U.S. U-2 spy planes gathered while the balloon was still in the air showed it had intelligence capabilities much beyond what a weather balloon could conduct.
China has admitted that it owns the balloon but claims it was designed to conduct meteorological research, an assertion the U.S. has rejected.
The official said the multiple antennas that the balloon had were “likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications,” and that the solar panels were large enough to produce the power necessary to operate multiple intelligence collection sensors.
They said the U.S. is contacting the countries that have been the targets of the surveillance operations to inform them of China’s activities.
A top spokesperson for the Pentagon previously confirmed to reporters on Wednesday that the balloon was part of a larger surveillance operation that Beijing runs and that the U.S. knew of at least four Chinese balloons that had flown over some part of U.S. territory in the past.
The State Department official said the U.S. is “confident” that the company that made the balloon has direct ties to the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military. They added the company is an approved vendor of the military but did not identify it.
The official said the company advertises balloon products on its website and has videos from past flights of its balloons, which appear to have flown over the territory of the U.S. and its allies.
“The United States sent a clear message to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] that its violation of our sovereignty was unacceptable by shooting down the balloon, protecting our own sensitive intelligence, and maximizing our ability to track the balloon and recover the payload to get more information on the PRC’s program,” the official said.
They further said the U.S. will consider taking action against Chinese entities linked to the military that supported the balloon and “broader efforts” to address Beijing’s surveillance operations.
China has criticized the U.S. for its response to the balloon, saying that it is “irresponsible” and a demonstration of “information warfare” against Beijing.
The U.S. reportedly took action to limit the capabilities of the balloon while it was in the air before shooting it down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, stopping it from collecting U.S. communications.
—Updated at 1 p.m.