The U.S. military continues to retrieve remnants of a Chinese spy balloon shot down on Saturday over the Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense
Feb. 8 (UPI) -- As the U.S. military continues to collect remnants of a Chinese spy balloon shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on the weekend, U.S. intelligence officials said the balloon is part of a larger spying campaign.
The high-altitude balloon is one of at least five the Pentagon has revealed to the public to have flown through U.S. airspace during the current and previous administrations with another recently discovered floating over Latin America.
The most recent one identified over the United States was downed Saturday by the U.S. Air Force in about 50 feet of water. Military personnel are scouring a debris field of roughly 1 mile by 1 mile to retrieve what remains of the balloon.
China claims the balloon was operating for civilian purposes and had been blown off course.
U.S. military and federal officials said they are analyzing the retrieved parts to better understand China's spying program.
"This is a program that's been operated for several years," Brig. Gen. Pay Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.
Few specifics about the Chinese program were made public, though Ryder said the balloons that traversed the United States were "looking to surveil strategic sites," including "our strategic bases in the continental United States."
U.S. officials said Chinese balloons have operated over at least five continents in regions such as Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Europe.
"It demonstrates why, for the Department of Defense, that China remains the pacing challenge and something that we'll continue to stay focused on," he said.
Ryder added, without going into details, that China has deployed balloons of various sizes and "capabilities." Their presence "calls into question why China, the PRC, feel that it's okay to violate sovereign airspace of nations in a way that is inappropriate and unacceptable."
The PRC are the initials of China's official name, the People's Republic of China.
Of the five balloons detected over the United States, Ryder said three were detected during the administration of President Donald Trump, and two, including the one shot down, during the administration of President Joe Biden.
During a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the recent Chinese intrusion of U.S. airspace and said the information gathered from analyzing the balloons fragments will be communicated to Congress, as well as to international allies and partners.
"We're doing so because the United States was not the only target of this broader program," he said.
More information about the program will be revealed in the days ahead, he added, stating, "We are getting more information almost by the hour as we continue to work to salvage that balloon."
Stoltenberg said the presence of a balloon over the United States confirms a pattern of Chinese behavior that he has observed over the last few years as Beijing has invested heavily in new military capabilities, including in surveillance and intelligence platforms.
"We've also seen increased Chinese intelligence activities in Europe," he said.
"They use satellites, they use cyber and we've seen over the United States also balloons, so we just have to be vigilant," he said. "We need to be aware of the constant risk of Chinese intelligence and then step up what do we do to protect ourselves."
He said it is also proof that security is a global issue as what happens in Asia matters to Europe and vice-versa.
"This balloon over North American just confirms that."
During a press conference Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning was asked for Beijing's response to news that Washington has briefed other nations about its balloon.
"It is hoped that the U.S. will communicate with other countries based on facts," she said.