Here Are All The Chinese Spy Balloons Detected Since The Trump Administration

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • A host of possible Chinese surveillance balloons have been identified throughout the globe in recent years, including up to eight in the U.S. since former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, according to officials and media reports.
  • Defense officials say China deployed a fleet of surveillance balloons to spy on countries, although Beijing denies this.
  • “These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA,” a defense official said. 

At least 11 possible Chinese balloons have spied on countries since the beginning of the Trump administration as the extent of China’s alleged balloon espionage program is just now coming to light, according to officials and media reports.

Biden administration officials revealed that suspected Chinese surveillance balloons had intruded on U.S. territory at least four times since former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, including once shortly after President Joe Biden took office in 2021. The latest incident, disclosed publicly for the first time Thursday, is just one data point in what defense officials characterized as a concerted effort to spy on countries across five continents in recent years including at least eight instances in the U.S., according to media reports.

“These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries,” a senior defense official said. “These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA.” (RELATED: ‘Awareness Gap:’ US Failed To Detect Previous Chinese Spy Balloon Incursions Until After The Fact, General Says)

Although China evaded responsibility for the craft initially, it later claimed ownership of a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that accidentally “deviated far from its planned course,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement Friday.

A member of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs told Florida Republican Rep. and House Armed Services Committee member Mike Waltz at least eight incidents had occurred during an unspecified time frame, Politico reported.

“I had a conversation with someone at the Joint Staff that used the number eight,” Waltz told the outlet Monday. He added DOD officials told him separately that at least two incidents happened near Florida and one in Texas, but would not disclose where the others occurred.

An unmanned balloon surfaced off the Hawaiian coast in February 2022, triggering the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command to activate F-22 fighter jets to intercept the craft, “visually confirming an unmanned balloon without observable identification markings,” according to a statement from the state’s top military official, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara.

One of the balloons may have overflown Guam, a U.S. territory that serves as a strategic military base for U.S. Pacific operations, during the Trump administration, two U.S. officials told Politico on Sunday. In addition, the intelligence community identified more than one smaller balloon assessed as Chinese radar-jamming devices off the coast of Virginia in 2020, a former senior defense official said.

At least one of the Trump-era sightings occurred in 2019, Politico reported.

China’s fleet of espionage airships have surfaced in countries around the world, and one is currently transiting Latin America, the Pentagon said Friday. Videos emerged of the balloon in Costa Rica on Saturday and later the Columbian military confirmed an object resembling a balloon had entered its airspace at an altitude of 55,000 feet, Reuters reported.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the balloon spotted in Latin America belonged to China during a regular press conference Monday.

“It has been verified that the unmanned airship is from China, of civilian nature and used for flight test,” Mao said. This balloon, too, had deviated from it’s planned flight path due to uncontrollable forces, she added.

A classified intelligence report attributed many unmanned aerial objects to Chinese surveillance efforts, although Pentagon officials familiar with the report referenced commercial drones — not balloons — as a way Beijing can spy on U.S. military bases to observe the training tactics of U.S. pilots.

Also in February 2022, around the same time a balloon neared Hawaii, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense addressed several Chinese balloons that had overflown the independent island, Taipei Times reported. However, Taiwanese authorities assessed the balloons likely served meteorological purposes and did not pose a military threat.

A mysterious balloon-like object was spotted over Japan in 2020, with photos appearing to depict a large, spherical, white airship dangling x-shaped equipment, according to Reuters. Residents of an island close to India’s eastern coast identified a similar object in 2022, local media Andaman Sheekha reported.

However, neither sighting was confirmed to be that of a Chinese-operated surveillance balloon.

China may have deployed tethered, radar-equipped balloons from a hub in Tibet to spy on India, retired Indian Col. Vinayak Bhat claimed in 2019, providing satellite imagery that appeared to show blimp-like objects hovering over possible landing pads.

The Chinese high altitude balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina Saturday following an order from President Joe Biden.

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