In January 2023, a Chinese spy balloon entered U.S. airspace and flew over several states for more than a week, sparking a major security incident and diplomatic tensions. The U.S. military eventually shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, but not before it collected valuable intelligence from some of the most sensitive American military sites, according to officials.
The Chinese spy balloon was an unmanned, high-altitude airship that carried a sophisticated surveillance system capable of collecting signals intelligence, or SIGINT. Signals intelligence is the interception and analysis of electronic signals, such as communications, radar, or weapons systems.
The balloon was launched from China and used solar panels to power its propulsion and communication systems. It was able to fly at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet (20,000 meters), above most commercial aircraft and weather systems. It was also able to adjust its course and speed by using wind currents and remote control from China.
The balloon had a self-destruct mechanism that could have been activated remotely by China, but it is not clear if that failed or if China decided not to use it.
The Chinese spy balloon entered U.S. airspace over Alaska on Jan. 28, 2023, according to the Biden administration, which said it was tracking it as it moved across the country. The balloon flew over several states, including Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
During its flight, the balloon was able to gather intelligence from several sensitive U.S. military sites, despite the efforts of the U.S. government to block it from doing so. According to officials, China was able to steer the balloon so it could make multiple passes over some of the sites (at times flying figure-eight formations) and transmit the information it collected back to Beijing in real-time.
The intelligence China collected was mostly from electronic signals, which can be picked up from weapons systems or include communications from base personnel, rather than images. The officials did not specify which sites were targeted by the balloon, but some of the possible candidates include:
- NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), a joint U.S.-Canadian command that monitors and defends North American airspace from potential threats.
- Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a hardened underground facility that houses NORAD’s operations center and other critical military functions.
- Fort Carson, an Army base that hosts several combat units and special operations forces.
- Buckley Space Force Base, a Space Force installation that operates several satellite systems for missile warning, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
- Whiteman Air Force Base, an Air Force base that hosts the B-2 stealth bomber fleet and other nuclear-capable assets.
- Scott Air Force Base, an Air Force base that hosts the U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees global military transportation and logistics.
- Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, an Air Force base that hosts the Air Force Research Laboratory and other research and development organizations.
- Naval Station Norfolk, a Navy base that hosts the largest concentration of naval forces in the world.
- Fort Bragg, an Army base that hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and other elite units.
- Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base that hosts several expeditionary forces and special operations units.
The Chinese spy balloon was a significant security breach and a provocation by China. It demonstrated China’s growing capabilities and ambitions in the field of aerial surveillance and intelligence collection. It also exposed some of the vulnerabilities and gaps in the U.S. air defense system.
The intelligence China collected from the balloon could give it an advantage in a potential conflict with the U.S., especially in the domains of space and cyberspace. It could also help China improve its own weapons systems and countermeasures.
The incident also strained the already tense relations between Washington and Beijing over issues such as Taiwan, human rights, trade, and climate change. The Biden administration condemned China’s actions as reckless and irresponsible and demanded an explanation and accountability from Beijing. China denied any wrongdoing and accused the U.S. of overreacting and violating international law by shooting down the balloon.