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EXCLUSIVE: Never-before-seen Chinese military airship caught on satellite images of remote desert base | CNN Politics


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, show exclusive new satellite images obtained by CNN.

Aerospace experts say the images, taken three months before a chinese spy balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, it could signal a remarkable advance in China’s aircraft program, demonstrating a more versatile and maneuverable aircraft than ever seen or known before.

The images, taken in November 2022 by US satellite imaging company BlackSky, show a roughly 100-foot-long blimp in the middle of a nearly a kilometer-long runway at a desert military compound in northwestern China. CNN presented the images to several aerospace experts, who confirmed that they show a blimp and runway, supported by a pivot point used to launch aircraft, as well as a massive, nearly 900-foot aircraft hangar.

Oklahoma Aerospace Institute executive director Jamey Jacobs said a blimp like this could be used as a “submarine of the skies” and appears to have dedicated propulsion and navigation capabilities, allowing it to hover over an area for a period of time. dragged on.

“It really is the next leap for them in terms of promoting engineering and supporting research funding in that direction,” Jacobs said.

CNN contacted several congressional and administration offices familiar with US intelligence on China who did not speak directly about the base or the blimp.

A senior Defense Department official declined to comment on what threats the blimp in China’s arsenal posed, but said since it is visible, the Pentagon would be aware.

“You can expect that we are tracking the object because it is available through satellite imagery,” the official said.

The CIA declined a request for comment. The National Security Council did not respond to a request.

The spy balloon incident in January brought significant attention to China’s aircraft program, revealing just how useful aircraft can be for its espionage activities. according to a report 2018 by the Rand Corporation on the country’s modern warfare strategy, such aircraft are attractive to the Chinese because they are “less expensive…and provide more accurate intelligence” than satellites, as well as being “less susceptible to destruction” than the airplanes. .

Although China is not alone in using aircraft (the US military has used aerostats), this discovery now confirms that the PLA program uses all three types of aircraft: blimps, aerostats, and floating balloons.

Eli Hayes, a researcher who has studied the Chinese airship program for years, also noted that the blimp’s appearance at a Chinese military facility marks a remarkable transition in Chinese blimp technology and research: It’s no longer just civilian.

“It’s not just people talking about potential applications or use cases,” Hayes told CNN, explaining that research institutions and universities have built Chinese aircraft and achievements in the past. While it’s unclear if those institutions helped create this blimp, Hayes notes that some are known to have deep ties to the People’s Liberation Army, and at least one has been on a US sanctions list for years. decades.

CNN asked the Chinese Defense Ministry about the blimp and its purpose, but did not receive an immediate response. China is in the midst of a five-day May Day holiday.

Additional satellite imagery and analysis of the site suggest that the PLA has significantly higher goals for its site and its aircraft program.

The large, 400-foot-long cradle bears a striking resemblance to figures on a Chinese patent, held by the newly formed PLA 63660 unit.

“If I had to guess, (this blimp is) probably some kind of test,” said William Kim, a surveillance balloon specialist with The Marathon Initiative, a nonprofit military and diplomatic research organization.

Where the airship program fits into the chinese military the general organizational structure remains a mystery, although the patents suggest that they recently created a unit to oversee the technology.

Several patents related to aircraft technologies were recently reassigned to a new PLA group, Unit 63660, according to Hayes. A CNN review of the Chinese patents confirms that the new unit holds a number of other patents related to aircraft technology and storage, which were recently reassigned from a previous PLA unit.

When the PLA originally built the massive 900-foot 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 blanketed the desert base with snow, other areas of the complex and the roads were cleared while the snow around most of the runway and the hangar remained largely untouched.

Excavation and construction work that began on the complex in the summer of 2022 has restarted, according to the latest images from BlackSky.  It is not yet clear what the PLA is building to the south and east of the large hangar, but satellite imagery shows that this is foundation work, as well as the construction of some sort of underground cellar.

Jacobs told CNN that the cavernous hangar was unlikely to have been purpose-built for the blimp seen in the satellite image.

“This blimp hangar is sized for much larger aircraft than what they have here for this particular vehicle,” he said, which is an indication that the blimp could be a test vehicle or a secondary mission.

In 2020, a huge cradle-shaped device was seen on the nearly kilometer-long track. The cradle is so big, roughly 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, Jacobs says it’s highly unlikely that the comparatively small blimp seen in satellite images would be able to use it.

The cradle also bears clear similarities to a Chinese patent Hayes discovered, which would house a large stratospheric airship.

Additional activity at the site continues to increase, as well as the footprint of the hangar complex. Additional satellite images provided to CNN by BlackSky show construction, including underground excavation and foundation pours, is continuing.

It’s not clear what its purpose is, but Hayes says a major indicator that China is really ramping up its aircraft program is if a truly large aircraft emerges from the hangar.

“At this particular site, I would really like to see the big blimp,” Hayes said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly reflect US sources contacted by CNN refusing to board the blimp and remote Chinese military base.

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