While there may not be as many as 99 of them, the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday was just one of a large network of surveillance balloons, defense officials say. Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said Wednesday that spy balloons have been detected over areas including East Asia, Europe, and South America as well as the US in recent years, the New York Times reports. "This is what we assess as part of a larger Chinese surveillance balloon program," Ryder said. He said the week the balloon traveled over the US provided a " unique opportunity" to learn more about the program and track the balloons.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is sharing information on the balloons with dozens of countries. "We're doing so because the United States was not the only target of this broader program, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents," Blinken said, per the Times. Insiders tell the Washington Post that the balloons have been on dozens of missions in recent years and that intelligence analysts have reclassified some sightings of unidentified objects as spy balloon sightings. According to the Post's sources, one of the main balloon bases is in Hainan Island in southern China, which has sent balloons to gather information on military facilities in Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and beyond.
The sources said the spy balloons have some advantages over satellites—including being much cheaper. They can also linger over facilities for hours, while satellites normally only have a few minutes at a time to gather information. "What the Chinese have done is taken an unbelievably old technology, and basically married it with modern communications and observation capabilities," a US official tells the Post. "It's a massive effort." (Read more spy balloon stories.)