The Chinese spy balloon that transited across the U.S. before it was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday is part of a “larger Chinese surveillance balloon program” that has operated for several years and over multiple continents, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
“As you highlight, we are aware that there have been four previous balloons that have gone over U.S. territory,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said during a briefing on Wednesday.
“We know that they were looking to surveil strategic sites, to include some of our strategic bases in the continental United States,” Ryder said later in the briefing. “And so when you look at the scope of this program and the fact that we know that these balloons have been spotted, and what we now can subsequently assess to be Chinese balloons operating over at least five continents.”
The most recent balloon flew over or near four military sites in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and Missouri after it first entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28. Previous balloons have flown over parts of Hawaii, Texas and Florida — three during the Trump administration and one at the beginning of the Biden administration.
The Pentagon in a statement Friday said that another Chinese surveillance balloon was seen over Latin America.
A senior administration official said the two recent balloons had surveillance equipment that would not usually be associated with meteorological activities or civilian research, which is what the Chinese government has maintained the balloon over the U.S. had been doing and veered off course.
China’s balloon program is “designed to augment” its surveillance capabilities, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told CBS News on Wednesday. With the most recent balloon, the Pentagon took steps to protect nuclear forces across the country from the balloon’s surveillance.
“Certainly all of our strategic assets, we made sure were buttoned down and movement was limited and communications were limited so that we didn’t expose any capability unnecessarily,” Austin said.
The balloons are easier to maneuver and can remain over an area longer than a satellite in orbit, according to a senior administration official.
The U.S. has also briefed its allies on the program. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman held a briefing Monday about the balloon incident for about 150 staff from roughly 40 embassies, a senior administration official confirmed. In the briefing, it was revealed that one balloon circumnavigated the globe in 2019, passing by Hawaii and over Florida, the official said. Balloons were also flown over Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Asked by PBS Newshour on Wednesday if the balloon incident has damaged U.S.-China relations, President Joe Biden quickly dismissed the idea with a “no.”
Mr. Biden said that’s because he and his team talk to Chinese leadership, although Mr. Biden noted he hasn’t spoken with the Chinese President Xi Jinping since the incident.
“I haven’t talked to him during this. But look, I mean, the idea, shooting down a balloon that’s gathering information over America … and that makes relations worse?” the president said with a laugh. “Look, I made it real clear to Xi Jinping that we’re going to compete fully with China. But we’re not going to — we’re not looking for conflict. And that’s been the case so far.”
After the balloon was shot down, Austin tried to call his Chinese counterpart.
“I put in a request for a call,” Austin told CBS News. “And and they did not accept that request.”
David Martin, Margaret Brennan, Ed O’Keefe, Eleanor Watson and Kathryn Watson contributed reporting.