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Exclusive: Never-before-seen Chinese military airship captured on satellite images of remote desert base

(CNN) A large air balloon developed by the Chinese military has been spotted for the first time at a remote base in the desert of northwestern China, exclusive new satellite images obtained by CNN show.

Aviation experts say the images, taken three months before a Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, could signal a remarkable advance in China’s airship program, demonstrating a more versatile and maneuverable craft than previously seen or known.

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

Jamey Jacobs, executive director of the Oklahoma Aerospace Institute, said a balloon like this could be used as a “submarine of the sky” and that it appears to have dedicated propulsion and navigation capabilities, which would allow it to hover over an area in a longer period.

“It’s really the next leap for them in advancing the development and support of research funding in that direction,” Jacobs said.

CNN contacted several congressional and administration officials familiar with U.S. intelligence on China, who would not speak directly about the base or the airship.

On August 10, 2022, a BlackSky satellite was pictured cradled out of the hangar and sitting at the pivot point on the runway. Tarpaulins covering parts of the cradle indicate that it may have undergone some form of testing or maintenance.

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

“You can expect because it is available through 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 for comment.

China’s “near space” program

The spy balloon incident of January brought significant attention to China’s airship program, revealing how useful airships can be to its espionage business. According to a 2018 Rand Corporation report on the country’s modern warfare strategy, these types of airships are attractive to the Chinese because they are “cheaper … and provide more accurate intelligence” than satellites, as well as being “less prone to destruction” than fly.

While China is not alone in using airships—the US military has used aerostats—this discovery now confirms that the PLA program uses all three types of airships: airships, airships, and free-floating balloons.

Eli Hayes, a researcher who has studied the Chinese airship program for years, also noted that the airship’s appearance at a Chinese military facility marks a remarkable transition in Chinese airship technology and research — it’s not just civilian anymore.

“It’s not just people talking about possible applications or use cases,” Hayes told CNN, explaining that previous Chinese airships and achievements have been constructed by research institutions and universities. While it is unclear whether these institutions helped create this airship, 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 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 a five-day May Day holiday.

Military patents

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

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

“If I had to guess, [this blimp is] probably some kind of testing,” said William Kim, a surveillance balloon specialist at The Marathon Initiative, a non-profit military and diplomatic research organization.

Where the airship program fits in Chinese military the overall organizational structure remains a mystery, although patents hint that they have recently created a unit to oversee the technology.

A number of patents involving airship technologies were recently transferred to a new PLA group – Unit 63660 – according to Hayes. A CNN review of Chinese patents confirms that the new device has a number of other patents related to airship technology and storage, and that they were recently transferred from a previous PLA device.

A hangar of 900 feet

When the PLA originally built the massive 900-foot hangar in 2013, there was little or no activity around it for years, according to a CNN review of hundreds of satellite images. When winter storms would blanket the desert base with snow, other areas of the complex and roads would be plowed while the snow surrounding most of the runway and hangar remained largely undisturbed.

Excavation and construction work that began at the complex in the summer of 2022 has restarted, according to the latest BlackSky images. It is still unclear what the PLA is building to the south and east of the large hangar, but the satellite images show that it involves ground work, as well as the construction of some sort of underground cellar.

Jacobs told CNN that it is unlikely that the hollow hangar was purpose-built for the airship seen in the satellite image.

“This airship hangar is sized for much larger aircraft than what you have for this particular vehicle here,” he said, indicating the airship may be a test vehicle or delivery.

In 2020, a massive cradle-like device was discovered on the nearly kilometer-long runway. The cradle is so large — about 400 feet long and 160 feet wide — Jacobs says it’s highly unlikely that the relatively small airship seen in the satellite images could even use it.

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

Additional activity at the site continues to increase, as does the hangar complex’s footprint. Additional satellite images provided to CNN by BlackSky show that construction, which includes underground excavations and foundation pouring, continues.

It’s unclear what their purpose is, but Hayes says a key indicator that China is really ramping up its airship program is if a really big airship emerges from the hangar.

“Especially at this location, I would really like to see the big airship,” Hayes said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the US sources CNN contacted declined to address the airship and the remote Chinese military base.

CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this report

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