Pentagon releases U2 pilot’s cockpit picture of Beijing’s surveillance craft as it flew over US

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The Pentagon has released a selfie taken by the pilot of a US Air Force U2S Dragon Lady who was surveilling the Chinese spy balloon as it traveled across American airspace earlier this month. 

During the balloon’s flight, it was regularly followed by US spy planes before being  shot down over the South Carolina coastline on the orders of President Joe Biden on February 4. The selfie was taken on February 3, when the balloon was close to Kansas. 

Prior to the picture’s release, CNN reported that the selfie had achieved ‘legendary status’ within the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Pentagon. 

The photo shows the shadow cast by the U2 plane across the top of the 200-foot tall balloon’s surface. Officials had said that the spy craft had reached altitudes of 60 to 70,000 feet during its mission. 

According to a report from The Drive, the U2S Dragon Lady, which has been in service since the 1950s, is the only plane in the US arsenal that could achieve the necessary height to take a photo from above the balloon.  

Pentagon releases U2 pilot’s cockpit picture of Beijing’s surveillance craft as it flew over US

The photo taken from the cockpit of a U2 spy plane shows the surface of the balloon from a previously unseen angle 

The newly released picture taken on February 3 shows a close-up of the balloon's solar panels

The newly released picture taken on February 3 shows a close-up of the balloon’s solar panels 

Since February 4, four objects have been shot down including the Chinese spy balloon, and then three 'UFOs'

Since February 4, four objects have been shot down including the Chinese spy balloon, and then three ‘UFOs’

State Department officials said that US ‘fly-bys’ had determined that the balloon was ‘capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.’ Beijing says it was an errant weather-monitoring craft.

The Navy, Coast Guard and FBI personnel are believed to have collected all of the balloon debris off the ocean floor, which included key equipment from the payload that could reveal what information it was able to monitor and collect.

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US Northern Command said in a statement that the recovery operations ended on February 16 and the final pieces are on their way to the FBI lab in Virginia for analysis. It said air and maritime restrictions off South Carolina have been lifted.

The announcement capped three dramatic weeks that saw U.S. fighter jets shoot down four airborne objects – the Chinese balloon on February 4 and three much smaller objects about a week later over Canada, Alaska and Lake Huron.

Last week, US military’s Northern Command, the agency tasked with defending the American homeland, revealed in a statement that debris from the first craft included sensors likely used for the gathering of intel.

‘Crews have been able to recover significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure,’ the statement said.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, sought to calm any fears Americans are having regarding potential risks posed by the three other unidentified objects.

‘I want to reassure Americans that these objects do not present a military threat to anyone on the ground,’ Austin said, speaking to reporters as he landed in Brussels for a NATO gathering.

‘They do, however, present a risk to civil aviation and potentially an intelligence collection threat.’

China warned it would take countermeasures against U.S. entities in response to American fighter jets shooting down its surveillance balloon amid tense diplomatic relations

The Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4

U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina earlier this month

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina earlier this month

Defense officials estimated the balloon was about the size of three buses at a height of 120 feet, and that the debris field would be substantial, estimated at seven miles when it was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday

The Chinese foreign ministry said it regretted that the balloon had mistakenly entered US airspace, claiming it was a civilian craft 

On Monday, China warned the United States on Sunday it would ‘bear all the consequences’ if it escalated the controversy over the spy craft. 

Beijing will ‘follow through to the end’ in the event ‘the U.S. insists on taking advantage of the issue,’ the foreign ministry said in a statement. 

China’s statement followed a meeting between top diplomat Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.  

A few days earlier, Biden said he expects to speak with China’s president, Xi Jinping, about the balloon. 

‘We are not looking for a new cold war,’ Biden said. 

Biden, in his most extensive remarks about the Chinese balloon and three unidentified objects downed by U.S. fighters, did not say when he would speak with Xi, but said the United States was continuing to engage diplomatically with China on the issue.

‘I expect to be speaking with President Xi. I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,’ Biden said in response to complaints from Beijing. 

Separately, the Pentagon’s top China official, Michael Chase, plans to visit Taiwan in the coming days, the Financial Times reported, citing sources. 

Chase would be the most senior U.S. defense official to visit the island since 2019. China claims the democratically governed island as its own, while the U.S. for decades has followed a non-committal policy. 

‘I think the last thing that Xi wants is to fundamentally rip the relationship with the United States and with me,’ Biden told NBC News after the speech.

Biden, who had made few public comments about the spate of aerial objects that began with the spotting of the Chinese balloon, broke his silence after U.S. lawmakers demanded more information on the incidents, which have baffled many Americans. 

Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island, where the country's balloon program is based

Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island, where the country’s balloon program is based

The balloon is thought to have been the product of a factory based out of a naval base on a remote island in the Communist nation. 

One senior official told the Washington Post that China’s airship program represents a ‘massive effort’ within the country’s espionage programs. The program is based of the Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island on China’s southern coast. 

While a Japanese official told the newspaper that in 2020 an orb was spotted over the country, which many believed was a UFO. That official said: ‘In hindsight people are realizing that was a Chinese espionage tool. But at that time it was purely novel — nobody had seen this.’ 

Intelligence officials do not have an estimate on how many spy balloons the Chinese military possesses. An official did use the word ‘dozens’ when asked about how many sightings there have been in recent years, according to the Post.

The newspaper went on to report that in June 2022, a spy balloon crashed in Hawaii. As a result, the US military were able to gleam valuable information about Chinese military technology.

Speaking about the advantages of using a balloon for spying reasons rather than more sophisticated technology, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charlie ‘Tuna’ Moore said: ‘If you have a balloon that’s moving extremely slowly you have persistence that you can’t get from a satellite.’

Moore added that typically satellites only have seconds in order to take pictures of their targets.

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