China downed second spy balloon in South Atlantic

By Jason Sherman / March 9, 2023 at 1:33 PM

China quietly destroyed a high-flying spy balloon last month over the Atlantic Ocean in waters off South America, somehow downing an airship previously spotted over Costa Rica at about the same time a platform that appeared identical was transiting the United States last month, according to senior military officials.

“The PRC actually terminated that balloon in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast of South America,” Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace and Defense Command, told the House Armed Services Committee on March 8, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Gen. Linda Richardson, head of U.S. Southern Command testifying at the same hearing, added: “That’s what I understand as well.”

This development adds an intriguing postscript to the Chinese spy-balloon saga -- implying Beijing potentially had the ability to activate a self-destruct mechanism as the large airship and its payload drifted from Montana to South Carolina.

VanHerck last month assessed the balloon that flew over the United States was about 200-feet in height and carried a payload the size of a regional jet weighing between 1,000 pounds to 2,000 pounds. At that time, he said military leaders determined the sensor packages included photographic equipment and potentially explosives. The high-altitude balloon was eventually shot down by the Air Force in waters off South Carolina.

DOD officials at the time said the U.S. military took "maximum precautions" to prevent the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon from collecting intelligence on domestic military sites during its flight over states with sensitive installations -- including key strategic nuclear locations.

“We know with certainty they intended to surveil sensitive U.S. military and critical infrastructure sites,” Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, told the House panel. “By shooting down the balloon in our territorial waters, we sent a clear message to the PRC that activity such as this is unacceptable.”