After the Chinese spy balloon was finally shot down by the U.S. Air Force, senior U.S. military and national security officials confirmed that what China claimed was just a “weather balloon” was actually tied to a major, worldwide surveillance program being run by China’s military.

On Wednesday, Department of Defense press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters that the U.S. had been tracking China’s surveillance operations long before the rogue balloon made headlines last week.

“We are now learning more about the scale of this Chinese balloon surveillance program, which U.S. Intelligence and the Pentagon have been observing for several years,” said Ryder. “Our awareness and understanding of this capability has increased.”

Ryder reported that this elaborate Chinese espionage program has been operating since at least 2018, and revealed that spy balloons have been spotted over five continents, not just North America.

“When you look at the scope of this program – operating over at least five continents in regions like Latin America, South America, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Europe – again, it demonstrates why, for the Department of Defense, that China remains the pacing challenge and something that we’ll continue to stay focused on,” Ryder said.

It has also been revealed that, just four months ago, another Chinese spy balloon was discovered after it crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Also, during the Trump administration, three other Chinese balloons were reportedly flown over Texas, Florida, and Guam.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charlie “Tuna” Moore reported that spy balloons have key advantages compared to more sophisticated technology like satellites.

“If you have a balloon that’s moving extremely slowly you have persistence that you can’t get from a satellite,” Moore said, noting that satellites will only have seconds to take pictures of their targets.

This program is being run by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) out of China’s heavily militarized Hainan Island province located off the coast of the mainland in the South China Sea. The surveillance balloons are likely being used to gather military intelligence from nations that are of strategic interest to Beijing, such as Japan, India, and the Philippines.

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