American intelligence agencies have assessed that China’s spy balloon program is part of a global surveillance effort that is designed to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world, according to three American officials.
The balloon flights, some officials believe, are part of an effort by China to hone its ability to gather data about American military bases — in which it is most interested — as well as those of other nations in the event of a conflict or rising tensions.
The balloons have some advantages over the satellites that orbit the earth in regular patterns, U.S. officials say. They fly closer to earth and drift with wind patterns, which are not as predictable to militaries and intelligence agencies as the fixed orbits of satellites, and they can evade radar. They can also hover over areas while satellites are generally in constant motion. Simple cameras on balloons can produce clearer images than those on orbital satellites, and other surveillance equipment can pick up signals that do not reach the altitude of satellites.
American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said that intelligence agencies during the Biden administration had developed a far deeper understanding of the scope and size of the Chinese spy balloon effort, discovering earlier incursions that had been classified as unknown events and tracking new operations by the Chinese spy balloons.
However, U.S. officials said most of the previous observations of the surveillance balloons had been short. The latest spy balloon’s transit across the United States last week gave the U.S. military and intelligence agencies a long period of time to study the capabilities of the surveillance equipment attached to it. Officials said their knowledge of what China was capable of collecting from their balloon program has increased dramatically.
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