It’s been said that blimps are better for wartime intelligence gathering than drones are. Apparently, the Chinese have been working on one.
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. CNN 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.
CNN 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.
On August 10, 2022, a BlackSky satellite imaged the cradle out of the hangar and sitting at the pivot point on the runway. Tarps covering parts of the cradle indicate it may have been undergoing some sort of test or maintenance.Courtesy BlackSky
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.
CNN 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.
The large, 400 foot long cradle, bears striking resemblance to figures from a Chinese patent, held by the newly formed PLA unit 63660.Courtesy BlackSky
“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 CNN 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.
A 900-foot hangar
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 would cover the desert base with snow, other areas of the complex and roadways would be plowed while the snow around most of the runway and hangar sat largely undisturbed.
Excavation and construction work that began at the complex in the summer of 2022 has restarted, according to the latest BlackSky imagery. It’s still unclear what the PLA is building to the south and east of the large hangar, but the satellite imagery shows that it involves foundation work, in addition to the construction of some sort of subterranean basement.Courtesy BlackSky
Jacobs told CNN that it’s unlikely the cavernous hangar was purpose built for the blimp seen in the satellite image.
“This blimp hangar is sized for much larger aircraft than what you have for this particular vehicle here,” he said, which is an indication that the blimp could be a test vehicle or sub-mission.
In 2020, a massive cradle-like device was spotted on the nearly kilometer-long runway. The cradle is so large – roughly 400 feet long and 160 feet wide – Jacobs says it’s highly unlikely the comparatively small blimp seen in the satellite images can even use it.
The cradle also bears distinct similarities to a Chinese patent that Hayes discovered, which would hold a large stratospheric airship.
Additional activity at the site continues to increase, as well as the hangar complex’s footprint. Additional satellite imagery provided to CNN by BlackSky shows construction, which includes subterranean excavation and foundation pouring, is continuing.
It’s unclear what their purpose is, but Hayes says a major indicator that China is really ramping up their airship program is if a truly large airship emerges from the hangar.
“At this site in particular, I would really want to see the big airship,” Hayes said.