(CNN) A large airship developed by the Chinese military has been spotted for the first time at a remote base In the desert of northwest China, exclusive new satellite imagery obtained by CNN shows.
Space experts say that the photos, taken three months before A Chinese spy balloon Dropped off the coast of South Carolina, it could indicate a significant advance in the Chinese airship program, signifying a craft more versatile and maneuverable than previously seen or known.
The images, taken by US satellite imaging company BlackSky in November 2022, show a roughly 100-foot-long airship in the middle of a roughly kilometer-long runway at a desert military complex in northwestern China. CNN provided the photos to a number of space experts, who confirmed that they show a balloon and a runway, reserved with a pivot point used to launch the airships, as well as a huge hangar about 900 feet high.
Such a balloon could be used as a “sky submarine,” said Jamie Jacobs, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Institute, and appears to have dedicated propulsion and navigation capabilities, which would allow it to hang over an area for an extended period.
“It’s really the next leap for them in terms of advancing engineering and supporting research funding in that direction,” Jacobs said.
CNN has reached out to several congressional and administration offices familiar with US intelligence on China who have not spoken directly about the base or the balloon.
A senior Defense Department official declined to comment on the threats the airship poses to China’s arsenal but said that since it is visible, the Pentagon will be aware.
“You can expect, available via satellite imagery, that we are tracking the object,” the official said.
The CIA declined a request for comment. The National Security Council did not respond to a request.
Chinese “near space” programme
The spy balloon incident in January brought great attention to the Chinese airship program, as it revealed how useful airships could be in espionage activities. according to 2018 report By the Rand Company on the country’s modern war strategy, these types of airships are attractive to the Chinese because they are “less expensive…and provide more accurate intelligence” than satellites, as well as being “less vulnerable to destruction” than aircraft.
Although China is not alone in using airships—the US military has used airships—this discovery now confirms that the PLA program uses all three types of airships: blimps, airships, and floating balloons.
Eli Hayes, a researcher who has studied the Chinese airship program for years, notes that the airship’s appearance at a Chinese military facility marked a remarkable shift in Chinese airship technology and research—no longer just civilian.
“People don’t just talk about potential applications or use cases,” Hayes told CNN, explaining that past Chinese balloons and achievements were built by research institutions and universities. While it is unclear if these institutions helped create this blimp, Hayes noted that some are known to have deep ties to the People’s Liberation Army, and that at least one has been on the US sanctions list for decades.
CNN asked the Chinese Ministry of Defense about the airship and its purpose, but did not immediately receive a response. China is in the middle of the five-day Labor Day holiday.
Additional satellite imagery and site analysis indicate that the PLA has much higher goals for its location, and for its airship program.
“If I had to guess, [this blimp is] “Maybe some kind of test,” said William Kim, an observation balloon specialist with the Marathon Initiative, a non-profit military and diplomatic research organization.
Where the balloon program fits in Chinese army The overall organizational structure remains a mystery, though patents give a hint that it recently set up a unit to oversee the technology.
A number of patents involving airship technologies were recently re-allocated to a new PLA group — Unit 63660 — according to Hayes. CNN’s review of Chinese patents confirms that the new unit holds a number of other patents related to blimp and storage technology, and that it was recently reallocated from a previous PLA unit.
900 ft long barn
When the People’s Liberation Army originally built the massive, 900-foot-tall hangar in 2013, there was little to no activity around it for years, according to a CNN review of hundreds of satellite images. When winter storms covered the desert base with snow, other areas of the complex and roads would be plowed while the snow around most of the runway and hangar remained largely undisturbed.
Jacobs told CNN it was unlikely that the cavernous hangar was specifically designed for an airship seen in the satellite image.
“This airship hangar fits a much larger aircraft than you have for this particular vehicle,” he said, an indication that the airship could be a test vehicle or sub-mission.
In 2020, a huge cradle-like device was spotted on an almost kilometer-long runway. The cradle is so large—nearly 400 feet long and 160 feet wide—that Jacobs says it’s very unlikely that the relatively small airship seen in satellite images could use it.
The cradle also bears distinct similarities to a Chinese patent discovered by Hayes, which would hold a large stratospheric balloon.
Additional activity at the site continues to increase, as does the impact of the hangar complex. Additional satellite imagery provided to CNN by BlackSky shows that construction work, which includes underground excavation and foundation pouring, is continuing.
It’s unclear what their purpose is, but Hayes says one of the main indications that China is really ramping up its airship program is a really big airship coming out of the fold.
“At this site in particular, I would really like to see the big airship,” Hayes said.
Correction: This story has been updated to properly reflect US sources contacted by CNN who refused to engage with the airship and the remote Chinese military base.
CNN’s Stephen Jiang contributed to this report
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