Chinese ‘weather balloons’ grabbed more than their fair share of headlines in early 2023 as they floated across Alaska and the lower 48, as well as Canadian airspace. Now the results of a multi-agency-led preliminary investigation into one of the balloons, which was shot down off the South Carolina coast in February, has revealed what was inside. The Wall Street Journal states that the investigation is finding that the balloons were full of American tech. In other words, these weren’t simple weather observation balloons as China has insisted, but spying devices using technology from the country they were spying on.
News that these seemingly low-tech but high-altitude balloons were quietly drifting across the continental US came into public perception in January and February this year. Though this was the first time knowledge of these balloons was discussed widely in media reports, it turned out that China had been floating these devices across the US since Donald Trump was president. Moreover, research has since revealed that similar Chinese balloons have been flown over territories in Europe, the Asia, and more.
What Was in the Balloons?
Confounding Chinese claims that these intrusive blimps were simple meteorological balloons is the assortment of technologies that have been found by investigators. The WSJ report says that inside balloon debris there was evidence of a multitude of American made equipment designed to collect photos, videos and other information. Among the components were a satellite-like device, solar panels for power, a propeller, and devices to collect photos, videos and radar data.
Some of the American-made information gathering equipment could be found for sale online. However, its mix with specialized Chinese sensors and other equipment has lead to this preliminary probe concluding that the Chinese balloons were created for spying.
When the news coverage of Chinese spying balloons was at its peak, there was talk about the blimps being able to collect and send data back to the Chinese government in real-time. Those fears have been calmed somewhat by the investigation which suggests that the downed near South Carolina device didn’t transmit any information to China during its eight-day adventure over the continent. Whether the non-transmission of data was due to a software or hardware fault, some other issue with the balloon, or if transmission was jammed by the US authorities, hasn't been explained.
Chilling an Already Cold Relationship
The US and China are already in the midst of a trade war, with seemingly tit-for-tat sanctions upon Chinese and American companies being implemented. Thus this new preliminary report, indicating the Chinese balloons were indeed designed for covert spying operations, won’t soothe relations.