Alaskan Fisherman Catch Possible Spy Balloon, FBI To Examine Wreckage: Report

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is reportedly preparing to take custody of what may be the remains of another spy balloon recovered by fishermen off the coast of Alaska. The news comes a week after the North American Aerospace Defense Command sent fighters to investigate another balloon over Utah, which was assessed to not be a threat to national security or a hazard to aviation. This all follows a string of similar incidents last year, including a Chinese spy balloon that intruded into U.S. airspace and was eventually shot down off the coast of South Carolina.

CNN first reported on the retrieval of the possible spy balloon off Alaska and plans to turn it over to the e Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) earlier today, citing anonymous sources “familiar with the matter.” The fishermen who found the potential wreckage are not expected to return to port until next week, according to the report. After taking custody of what was retrieved, the Bureau is expected to send it to its main lab in Quantico, Virginia.

US Navy personnel retrieve a portion of the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina in February 2023. USN

“The fishmen shared photographs of the object with law enforcement upon encountering it, the sources said,” according to CNN. “All three sources emphasized that it wasn’t clear exactly what the object was and that it may not be a balloon at all – but that the FBI determined that it was similar enough in appearance to a foreign-government owned surveillance balloon that it warranted further investigation.”

CNN was unable to identify the fishing vessel. The FBI declined to comment,” the outlet also reported.

The potential national security threats and other hazards posed by balloons and other lighter-than-air craft are not new. The War Zone had reported on this reality on multiple occasions even before this issue more broadly entered the public consciousness following a series of incidents in airspace over the United States and Canada last year.

The U.S. military now famously shot down a Chinese spy balloon flying over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina in Febraury 2023, days after it had first entered U.S. national airspace over Alaska. The remains of that balloon were also sent to the FBI lab in Quantico.

Between February 10 and February 12, U.S. fighters brought down three more objects flying in U.S. and Canadian airspace, as you can read more about here. More than a year later, details about the latter three shootdowns remain limited and no imagery has been released to date of any of the three objects, although the ex-head of the AARO office says it is coming. No debris appears to have been recovered, either. There are indications that at least one of those incidents involved a so-called “pico” balloon, a type often launched by amateur radio hobbyists.

It also emerged that Chinese spy balloons had transited through U.S. airspace on multiple occasions prior to January 2023. All of this prompted calls for significant changes to be made in operational procedures and other policies relating to airspace incursions at the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S Northern Command (NORTHCOM), as well as elsewhere within the U.S. military.

A number of immediate steps were taken to address what now-retired Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, then head of NORAD and NORTHCOM, described as a “domain awareness gap.” This notably included altering the data-collection parameters on various air defense radars, which immediately began showing a significant amount of ‘new’ activity.

An unclassified map showing various NORAD air defense nodes in the United States and Canada. DOD

There has been evidence of this heightened awareness, at least greater public interest in the matter, since February 2023. In March of last year, NORAD sent fighters to intercept what was subsequently “identified a small airborne object as likely a hobbyist Pico balloon and assessed the object posed no immediate military threat or safety of flight hazard.” Two months later, Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters intercepted a “spherical object” off Hawaii that was also assessed to be non-threatening.

More recently, NORAD confirmed the intercept of another balloon over Utah last Friday, which it also described as a “likely hobby balloon” that was assessed to pose no threat, according to a statement given to ABC News. Interestingly, that statement also specifically said that the balloon had been detected and monitored “via ground radars.”

There were reports last year that the Chinese government had suspended surveillance balloon operations, at least over the United States, in light of the shootdown off the South Carolina coast.

A picture taken from a US Air Force U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane of the Chinese spy balloon that was ultimately shot down in February 2023. The balloon is seen here soaring somewhere over the central United States. DOD

However, as The War Zone‘s Tyler Rogoway noted on X after reports emerged about last week’s incident, even significantly smaller balloons than the Chinese surveillance one that was downed last year have the potential to be threats or otherwise be objects of interest.

Chinese balloon operations, specifically, clearly continue elsewhere in the world, as well. In recent months, there has been a surge in Chinese balloons flying over and around the island of Taiwan, as you can learn more about here. In January, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense decried the situation as having become a “serious threat” to aviation safety.

Other countries, including Russia and the United States, have and continue to make use of various types of balloons and lighter-than-air craft for intelligence-gathering and various military purposes.

Separately, balloons and other lighter-than-air craft have emerged as likely explanations for a significant amount of sightings of what are now commonly called unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) and what have commonly been referred to as unidentified flying objects (UFO) in the past. Back in 2021, The War Zone laid out a detailed case for how some UAP/UFO sightings have very likely been balloons, as well as drones, operated by adversaries or potential adversaries.

A report released by the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in January 2023 noted that out of 366 newly reviewed UAP reports, 163 had been characterized as balloon or balloon-like entities. AARO was established the year before with a focus on refining and centralizing U.S. military-wide policies and procedures for tracking, reporting, and analyzing UAP-related incidents and maintaining a centralized repository of relevant intelligence assessments and other data.

Another report from AARO and ODNI released in October 2023 said that a new plan had been established “to identify systems that may assist in AARO’s mission to detect, track, and characterize UAP” and this “includes a sensor calibration campaign to measure known objects that are often reported as UAP” like “balloons (hobbyist and commercial), unmanned aircraft systems, and natural phenomena.”

Altogether, whatever the fishermen reportedly retrieved off the coast of Alaska and now plan to turn over to the FBI turns out to be, balloons continue to have the potential to present real national security concerns.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.