Chinese balloon sensor recovered from the ocean, US says, with hunt for others ongoing as Beijing denies spy claims

14 February 2023, 08:22

The balloon recovered from the ocean
The balloon recovered from the ocean. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

US officials found Chinese balloon sensors in the ocean after the structure shot down over American airspace, the military has said.

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Search teams took "significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large pieces of the structure" from the suspected Chinese spy balloon, said US Northern Command, which is the US agency responsible for security in North America.

The US military shot down this first balloon on February 4. Three more have been targeted since, but they have not been recovered yet. China said the first balloon was just a weather-monitoring airship that had been blown off course.

The weeks-long succession of objects, starting with a giant white orb first detected over US skies in late January, has puzzled American officials and stirred curiosity around the world.

Iain Dale: 'If they are spy balloons, it kind of heralds the start of another cold war doesn't it?'

The US has not definitively confirmed that the balloons were Chinese spying equipment, but said it shot them down because they were low enough to pose a possible threat to air traffic.

"Because we have not been able to definitively assess what these most recent objects are, we acted out of an abundance of caution," White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

The US has since warned that China could continue to pose a growing threat with its information collection efforts.

In the UK, PM Rishi Sunak refused to confirm on Monday whether any other incidents of unidentified objects had been reported in UK airspace, after Transport Minister Richard Holden suggested it was "possible".

Ex-RAF Chief says we should find out what spy kit is attached to Chinese balloons before worrying

And the former chief of air staff told LBC's Nick Ferrari on Tuesday that suspected Chinese spy balloons are "an irritation" but "it would be very useful to find out what's actually in them before we get too excited".

Asked by Nick how concerned the British military is about possible balloon incursions, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon said: "Until we know what's actually in them they're an irritation, certainly, and it's highly likely it's got some spy equipment on it but it would be very useful, wouldn't it, to find out what's in it before we get our knickers to much in the twist on that."

Read more: Ex-RAF Chief say Brits shouldn't 'get their knickers in a twist' over Chinese spy balloons just yet

Read more: 'We will do whatever it takes': Rishi Sunak pledges to shoot down spy balloons as US warns of growing threat from China

Asked why China would bother with surveillance balloons when it already has "260 spy satellites", he said: "It's a very good question. That's been sort of exercising my mind, what they are getting from a balloon that they can't get from other sources is not clear to me at all, and probably we have enough information available from satellites which they are able to get on to, and frankly using Google and all the rest of it, would give them an awful lot of information.

Balloon material recovered from the Atlantic Ocean
Balloon material recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. Picture: Getty

"I think possibly there's opportunity to listen in to certain things that they might not be able to do so easily."

On whether such balloons could be shot down if they enter UK airspace, Sir Michael said: "Probably the most likely is let it drift out towards sea and then shoot it down there but I go back to what I said to start with, it would be very useful to find out what's actually in them before we get too excited."

Mr Sunak said: "I want people to know that we will do whatever it takes to keep the country safe.

"We have something called the quick reaction alert force which involves Typhoon planes, which are kept on 24/7 readiness to police our airspace, which is incredibly important."

"I can't obviously comment in detail on national security matters, but we are in constant touch with our allies and, as I said, we will do whatever it takes to keep the country safe."

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