Classified US report highlighted foreign power surveillance with advanced technology

WASHINGTON – The Chinese spy balloon that floated across the continental United States before it was shot down by the US military generated deep concern on Capitol Hill in part because it came on the heels of a classified report that outlined incidents of US adversaries potentially using advanced aerial technology to spy on the country.

The classified report to Congress last month discussed at least two incidents of a rival power conducting aerial surveillance with what appeared to be unknown cutting-edge technology, according to US officials.

While the report did not attribute the incidents to any country, two US officials familiar with the research said the surveillance probably was conducted by China.

The report on what the intelligence agencies call unidentified aerial phenomena focused on several incidents believed to be surveillance. Some of those incidents have involved balloons, while others have involved quadcopter drones.

The Chinese government said Friday that the Chinese balloon discovered over the United States was mainly for weather research.

However, US officials said they have assessed it to be a collection device, although not one that could gather the kind of sensitive information that advanced Chinese reconnaissance satellites already collect.

Many countries use aerial spying technology to gather data on rival nations as well as allies and partners, and to look at remote parts of the globe. But the practice can lead to diplomatic crises and greater military tensions when it goes awry.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a weekend trip to Beijing, which would have been the first visit by the top US diplomat there since October 2018, after American news organisations began reporting on the Chinese spy balloon on Thursday, when it was drifting over Montana.

On Saturday, the US military shot down the balloon after it entered skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

In 2001, a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese interceptor jet near the Chinese island of Hainan; the incident left a Chinese pilot presumed dead and led to a diplomatic crisis involving the leaders of the two nations.

China spends about US$209 billion (S$276.6 billion), or 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product, on its military overall, according to a Pentagon report. But policymakers in Washington have been especially worried about its investments in technologies that could have military or intelligence applications.

US defence officials believe China is conducting surveillance of military training grounds and exercises as part of an effort to better understand how America trains its pilots and undertakes complex military operations. The sites where unusual surveillance has occurred include a military base in the United States and a base overseas, officials said.

The classified report mentioned Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan as sites where foreign surveillance was believed to have occurred, but did not explicitly say China had been behind the actions, a US official said.