A large blimp 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 imagery obtained by CNN shows.
Aerospace experts say the images, taken three months before a Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, could signal a notable advancement 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 blimp in the middle of a nearly kilometer-long runway at a desert military complex in northwestern China. presented the imagery to a number of aerospace experts, who confirmed they show a blimp and runway, bookended by a pivot point used to launch airships, as well as a massive, nearly 900-foot airship hangar.
Oklahoma Aerospace Institute executive director Jamey Jacobs said a blimp like this could be used as a “submarine of the skies,” and that it appears to have dedicated propulsion and navigation capabilities, which would allow it to loiter over an area for an extended period.
“It really is the next leap for them in terms of furthering the engineering and support of research funding in that direction,” Jacobs said.
reached out to several congressional and administration offices familiar with US intelligence on China who would not speak directly about the base or the blimp.
A senior Defense Department official declined to comment on what threats the blimp represents in China’s arsenal but said since it’s visible, the Pentagon would be aware.
“You can expect because it’s available via satellite imagery that we’re tracking the object,” the official said.
The CIA declined a request for comment. The National Security Council did not respond to a request.
China’s ‘near space’ program
The spy balloon incident from January brought significant attention to China’s airship program, revealing how useful airships can be to its spying activities. According to a 2018 report by the Rand Corporation on the country’s modern warfare strategy, these types of airships are attractive to the Chinese because they’re “less expensive … and provide more-precise intelligence” than satellites, in addition to being “less susceptible to destruction” than planes.
Although China is not alone in utilizing airships – the US military has used aerostats – this discovery now confirms the PLA program uses all three types of airships: blimps, aerostats and free-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 notable transition in Chinese blimp 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 past Chinese airships and accomplishments have been constructed by research institutions and universities. While it’s unclear whether those institutions assisted in the creation of this blimp, Hayes does note 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.
asked the Chinese Defense Ministry about the blimp, and its purpose, but did not immediately receive a response. China is in the midst of a five-day May Day holiday.
Additional satellite imagery and analysis of the site suggests that the PLA has significantly loftier goals for its site, and its airship program.
“If I had to guess, [this blimp is] probably some sort 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 into the Chinese military’s overall organizational structure remains a mystery, although patents are giving a glimpse that they’ve recently created a unit to oversee the technology.
A number of patents involving airship technologies were recently reassigned to a new PLA group – Unit 63660 – according to Hayes. A review of Chinese patents confirms that the new unit holds a number of other patents relating to airship technology and storage, and that they were recently reassigned from a previous PLA unit.