The Chinese spy balloon which flew over the US last month may have been carrying explosives in a huge payload “the size of a jetliner”, a top Pentagon official revealed last night.
The satellite, which defence officials said yesterday weighed tens of thousands of pounds and was 200ft tall, may have had a built-in explosive self-destruct function.
A US Air Force F-22 fighter jet shot down the Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast on Saturday, a week after it first entered US airspace and triggered a dramatic spying saga that worsened Sino-US relations.
The USS Carter Hall landing ship has collected the majority of the debris, the Pentagon said, while the military is using sonar to locate any parts that may have sunk.
Air Force general Glen VanHerck, head of US North American Aerospace Defence Command and Northern Command, told reporters they had so far ascertained that the balloon had a payload the size of a regional jetliner, weighed “in excess of a couple thousand pounds”, and potentially carried explosives “to detonate and destroy the balloon”.
He said experts continued to assess the debris, which fell into an area the size of 15 football fields, and could not yet confirm whether there were indeed explosives.
The United States Coast Guard said yesterday it was imposing a temporary security zone in the waters off Surfside Beach, South Carolina, in the area where the balloon was shot down.
The 10 nautical mile area security zone blocks vessels from entering without permission of the coast guard and is intended to protect the public “from potential hazards associated with physical objects”.
The Pentagon also revealed that Chinese spy balloons had briefly flown over the US at least three times during Donald Trump’s administration and one previously under President Joe Biden.
Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, defended Mr Biden, saying that since the president took office the US “enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect”.
General VanHerck conceded yesterday that previous spy attempts had been missed.
He added that US intelligence determined the previous flights after the fact based on “additional means of collection” of intelligence without offering further details on whether that might be cyber espionage, telephone intercepts or human sources.
China admitted yesterday that it launched a second observation balloon, which it said had “accidentally strayed” over Latin America after being blown off course.
The latest balloon was spotted by US and Colombian officials after a similar alleged spy balloon was shot down on the order of Mr Biden. China’s foreign ministry acknowledged the balloon was Chinese yesterday morning. “It has come to be understood that the relevant unmanned airship is from China,” said Mao Ning, a spokesperson. The device “seriously deviated from its scheduled route and accidentally strayed over Latin America and the Caribbean”.
This is similar to what Beijing said previously of the first balloon discovered, which had hovered in Montana over a major US nuclear missile silo complex.
China has maintained that it was a weather research “airship”
Telegraph Media Group Limited