The Pentagon on Wednesday released the closest look yet at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that flew over Canada and the United States early this month: a photo taken from the cockpit of a U.S. military aircraft.
The photo was snapped by the pilot of a U-2 reconnaissance plane on Feb. 3, looking down at the balloon as it hovered over the Central U.S. The balloon’s payload, believed to be surveillance equipment, is clearly visible.
The balloon was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet over the coast of South Carolina the day after the photo was taken.
The Pentagon confirmed the photo’s authenticity and released it to the media after CNN first reported on it.
NORAD, the continental air defence network, began tracking the balloon as it approached U.S. airspace in late January, the Pentagon said earlier this month. It passed north of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace.
Canadian defence officials told MPs last week the surveillance balloon unlawfully entered Canadian airspace between Jan. 30 and 31, crossing through Yukon and central British Columbia before re-entering the U.S. over northern Idaho.
It then continued over Montana, Kansas and other central states before reaching the coast of the Carolinas on Feb. 4.
The incident prompted NORAD to closely scrutinize North American airspace for signs of other foreign airborne objects. That led military jets to shoot down three more unidentified objects: one over Alaska on Feb. 10, another over Yukon on Feb. 11, and a third over Lake Huron on Feb. 12.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe the three objects did not come from China or are tied to any other foreign surveillance operation, and are most likely “benign” private commercial or research balloons. Search operations for all three objects have been called off due to difficult weather conditions.
The Pentagon says teams have recovered significant debris from the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, including sensors and other reconnaissance equipment. That debris is being analyzed to determine what, if any, information was gained as if flew over North America.
Speaking in Vancouver on Wednesday, Defence Minister Anita Anand said Canada is continuing to work “to ensure that we are extracting any data that may be relevant.”
She did not say if the search for the Yukon object will be resumed at any point or speculate on what it might be, but defended the decision to shoot it down.
“Rest assured, our priority from a defence standpoint is the protection of Canada and Canada’s population, and as the shootdown of the suspected balloon over central Yukon exemplified, that will always be our first priority,” she said.
“We will leave no stone unturned to ensure the protection of our country.”
Anand spoke after the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces on Wednesday confirmed they are aware of recent efforts by China to conduct surveillance operations in Canadian airspace and waters.
Spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier said in a statement that the armed forces have tracked and stopped attempts to surveil Canadian territory since 2022 under Operation LIMPID. He declined to provide further information “to ensure the integrity of operations.”
That came after the Globe and Mail reported the Canadian military had detected Chinese monitoring buoys in the Arctic.
Anand confirmed her department “is aware of the buoys” and that they have been extracted from the Arctic waters.
“We are also aware that this type of activity is not new, and will continue to do what is necessary in the protection of our Canadian population, as well as the work our allies are doing,” she said.
She later pointed to efforts to modernize NORAD, which Canada is investing $40 billion in, and affirmed maintaining and strengthening Arctic sovereignty is a top priority.
— with files from Aaron D’Andrea and the Canadian Press