Beijing, China, April 2022, China President Xi Jinping in meeting

Chinese Spy Balloon Had Self-Destruct System, Wirelessly Gathered Information

According to a new report, the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the US earlier this year used wireless technology to pick up sensitive signals from US military bases. The Chinese government initially denied ownership of the balloon, saying it was a civilian craft that had been blown off course.

US intelligence agencies say this is not true. They contend that the balloon was directly controlled by Beijing and that it was used to gather sensitive information about the US. However, the Biden Administration downplayed the severity of the balloon’s presence, saying it had roughly the same capabilities as any low-orbit satellite, which China already uses regularly.

Gathering Intelligence

Now, senior US officials have told reporters that the balloon was able to gather more information than Washington would have liked. The balloon gathered intelligence using wireless receivers and picked up signals from the ground. 

The Biden Administration tried to block the balloon from accessing any sensitive signals. They moved some assets around and tried to obfuscate the balloon but stopped short of shooting it down–they were worried about its debris landing over the US. China, meanwhile, tried to keep the balloon over important targets, often flying it in a figure-eight pattern to overhang various bases.

Shooting It Down

The Biden Administration eventually shot the balloon down over the Atlantic, drawing criticism from Beijing. Chinese officials said the US overreacted by shooting the balloon, insisting that it was a civilian craft that had just been blown off course. 

Meanwhile, US military personnel discovered that the balloon contained a self-destruct mechanism. That makes it unlikely that the balloon was anything other than an espionage tool sent by Beijing. It’s unclear whether the Chinese government couldn’t activate the self-destruct mechanism or simply chose not to, but the device was still intact when the US military recovered the balloon.

Farcical Episode

After news of the balloon was made public in early February, the Biden Administration publicly stated it had been watching the spy vessel since it flew over Alaska in late January. As soon as the news was made public, Chinese officials denied any connection to the balloon–and it picked up speed significantly to exit US airspace. 

Many onlookers considered the entire episode silly, and several began questioning Beijing’s goals. After all, if they can gather intelligence using low-orbit satellites, what’s the point of a massive, conspicuous spy balloon flying over the US?