U.S. Scrambles To Get A Handle On Mysterious Aerial Incursions (Updated)

A new U.S. government team is being established at President Joe Biden’s direction to help examine the policy implications stemming from increased scrutiny of aerial activity over and around North America. In the past two weeks, U.S. fighter jets have shot down a total of four high-flying aerial objects in American and Canadian airspace, including one identified as a Chinese government surveillance balloon. The U.S. Air Force’s top officer said today that the full extent of what is now being observed and what threats they might pose is still being analyzed.

John Kirby, the top spokesperson for President Biden’s National Security Council (NSC), announced the new inter-agency team earlier today. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will be in charge of the new working group, the formal name of which does not yet appear to have been disclosed.

The group’s main objective will be “to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis, and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks,” Kirby said at a press conference. This will include efforts to gain a better understanding of the extent of high-altitude aerial activity over the United States being conducted for legitimate non-military or intelligence-gathering purposes.

It is not immediately clear whether or not Sullivan’s new inter-agency team will include representatives from the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ONDI) National Intelligence Manager for Aviation (NIM-A). AARO was just established last year to provide a more centralized entity focused on investigating incidents involving so-called unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), things that have been more commonly referred to in the past as unidentified flying objects (UFO). NIM-A serves as a focal point for intelligence about all manner of aerial threats within the U.S. Intelligence Community.

In January, AARO and NIM-A published an unclassified version of their most recent report on UAP activity to Congress, which said that 163 newly cataloged incidents in 2022 had been assessed to be balloons or balloon-like. For years now, The War Zone has drawn attention to the high probability that many UAP sightings are in fact foreign intelligence-gathering or surveillance assets, having laid out a detailed case for this back in 2021.

Regardless, the creation of this new NSC-led working group stems from a series of shootdowns of uncrewed “objects” in U.S. and Canadian airspace since February 4.

The most recent of the shootdowns occurred yesterday over Lake Huron, which lies between the U.S. state of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario. The War Zone readers can get up to speed on what is known about that incident here. So far, the “object” remains largely uncategorized, beyond reports that it was octagonal in shape, and has not been attributed to any specific actor.

Two other shootdowns over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of the state of Alaska and in airspace over Canada’s Yukon Territory occurred on February 10 and 11, respectively. Again, these “objects” that were brought down in those instances have yet to be formally identified and attributed.

Canadian authorities have described the one that was downed over the Yukon as a “small, cylindrical object” and press reports have said may have been a balloon with a metallic-looking envelope and payload handing underneath. Reports about the object shot down off Alaska’s northeastern coastline indicated that it was “cylindrical and silver-ish gray,” but not necessarily a balloon.

“Right now, our priority is debris recovery so that we can get a better sense of what these objects are. We’re working closely with the rest of the federal government, including the FAA, the FBI, NASA, and others, to work through what we might be seeing,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters at a press gaggle after arriving in Brussels, Belgium, today. “I want to be clear – the three objects taken down this weekend are very different from what we were talking about last week.”

What Austin is referring to here, of course, is what the U.S. Air Force brought down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, which American officials said was a Chinese government surveillance balloon. That balloon had been monitored by American and Canadian forces for around a week as it flew through portions of both countries’ airspaces.

U.S. Navy personnel prepare to move portions of a Chinese surveillance balloon that were recovered off the coast of South Carolina and then carried ashore by a Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft. USN

“It was something that got all of our attention,” Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown said during an event today at The Brookings Institution think tank in response to a question about the Chinese surveillance balloon. “As we looked at over the course [of the] past week or so, better scrutiny of our airspace, also the adjusting of the radar sensitivities … means we’re seeing more things than we would normally see.”

The U.S. Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) use various radars to scan the skies above the United States and Canada on a daily basis. U.S. officials have previously disclosed that changes have been made to how they collect data.

“Radars essentially filter out information based on speed. So you can set various gates. We call them velocity gates that allow us to filter out low-speed clutter,” Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and NORTHCOM, told The War Zone and other outlets during a press conference last night. “So if you have radars on all the time that we’re looking at anything from zero speed up to, say, 100, you would see a lot more information.” 

“We have adjusted some of those gates to give us better fidelity on seeing smaller objects. You can also filter out by altitude. And so, with some adjustments, we’ve been able to get a better categorization of radar tracks now,” he continued. “And that’s why I think you’re seeing these overall. Plus, there’s a heightened alert to look for this information.”

This appears to have already created a significant glut of data that still needs to be analyzed, both when it comes to gleaning insights about the objects that have been shot down so far and for determining broader trends and threat assessments. “We don’t fully appreciate and understand what we’re seeing,” Gen. Brown said at Brookings today.

NSC spokesperson Kirby made similar comments about the overall situation during his press conference. He added that, of the three still-unidentified objects, there were no indications they were transmitting signals of any kind or presented an immediate threat to anyone on the ground. U.S. and Canadian officials have previously said they were flying low enough to potentially be hazards to normal air traffic, which contributed to the decisions to shoot them down.

In response to a query from The War Zone earlier today about whether any new contacts of concern were being tracked over North America, NORAD’s public affairs office said that it had nothing new to add at that time. The office also said that it had no new details to share about the ongoing efforts to recover the remains of the Chinese surveillance balloon or the other three objects.

These concerns and questions extend beyond North America, too. Air Force Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, head of U.S. Air Forces Central (AFCENT), the service’s top command in the Middle East, said that similar aerial objects have been observed in that region, as well as over Afghanistan, in the past few years during a live-streamed chat at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank today. He added that in no instance did they come near sensitive U.S. facilities. The general had made similar comments at a separate press conference earlier in the day.

U.S. officials have previously disclosed that surveillance balloons specifically tied to the Chinese government have been observed flying over or near multiple locations across five continents. This includes prior instances of overflights of U.S. territory, including in the noncentral United States, as well as other incidents in Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa.

American officials have been sharing information about these high-altitude surveillance activities with dozens of allies and partners, many of whom are now examining or re-examining past incidents in their own airspace. The Financial Times newspaper in the United Kingdom reported just today that balloons operated by China’s People’s Liberation Army have been flying over Taiwan at a rate of an average of once a month, including an incident “just a few weeks ago,” citing anonymous officials on that island.

It is, of course, only becoming more and more clear that none of this is new. The New York Times today published a story exploring connections between Chinese companies recently hit by U.S. sanctions. The piece was focused on one particular common denominator: Wu Zhe, an academic at Beihang University in Beijing.

In 2019, Wu claimed that an experimental lighter-than-air craft that he had helped develop, called Cloud Chaser, was on a round-the-world voyage that would take it over parts of North America, as well as Asia and Africa, according to an interview with the Chinese newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily that has recently resurfaced. So far, there does not appear to be any corroboration that this flight occurred or that, if it did, the airship traversed any part of North America.

A rendering of the Cloud Chaser airship that Wu Zhe claimed would fly over North America and other continents in the course of a round-the-world flight in 2019. Chinese internet

That being said, Beihang University’s significant work on solar-powered, maneuverable stratospheric airships with long-range capabilities and the potential to be used as surveillance platforms or for other military applications is no secret. Back in 2021, The War Zone highlighted the institution’s contributions in this field and its potential ties to the Chinese military in a detailed feature centered on the appearance of a huge hangar linked to airship work in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

An annotated rendering of a stratospheric airship design called Tian Meng developed at Beihang University. Beihang University

“Whoever gains the edge in near space vehicles will be able to win more of the initiative in future wars,” Shi Hong, “a Chinese military commentator wrote in a current affairs journal last year,” according to The Times‘ story today, further underscoring the Chinese government’s interest in these capabilities.

China is not the only potential adversarial actor that the U.S. government and its allies and partners necessarily have to contend with when it comes to interest in and potential employment of high-altitude surveillance balloons and other similar capabilities, either.

“I think what we saw over the United States, obviously, not just this last week, is part of a pattern where China, but also Russia, are increasing their intelligence and surveillance activities against NATO allies with many different platforms,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference today. “That highlights the importance of our vigilance, our increased presence, and also that we ramp up and step up, how we share intelligence and how we monitor and protect our airspace.”

At the same time, Grynkewich’s comments during the talk at CNAS point to at least some degree of debate at present about the extent of the threat that the various aerials objects that are now drawing increased scrutiny around the world may or may not present.

“Even though we have seen high-altitude balloons in the region before they have not been a threat, they have not been something of concern for us,” the AFCENT commander said. “I would not even characterize them necessarily as some particular type of balloon and the level of concern that I have about them is extremely low.”

“It’s not something that I lose sleep at night [over],” he added.

Grynkewich’s remarks here came in the context of other existing regional threats, especially from Iran. He also stressed that high-altitude surveillance capabilities that can offer persistent coverage over large areas have great utility. He noted that his command was exploring balloons, among other things, for its own use in this regard.

The U.S. military, as a whole, has been very open in recent years about its interest in using high-altitude balloons to perform a variety of missions, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), signal relay, and even long-range strikes.

The government in China, just today, claimed that 10 U.S. balloons intruded into the country’s airspace since January 2022, but provided no evidence to substantiate that or explain why the decision to disclose this information was only made now. Though there is historical precedent for U.S. balloon-borne surveillance operations over foreign countries, American officials have categorically denied this particular Chinese allegation.

“Any claim that the US government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is false. It is China that has a high altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, connected to the People’s Liberation Army, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the United States and over 40 countries across 5 continents,” a U.S. State Department spokesman told The War Zone in a statement. “This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control. It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the United States was a weather balloon and to this day has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace and the airspace of others.”

Over the weekend, a Chinese state-run newspaper reported that an unidentified balloon had been spotted soaring off the coast of the country’s eastern Shandong Province near the Jianggezhuang Naval Base and the country’s military was preparing to shoot it down. At the time of writing, there do not appear to be any further reports to corroborate this sighting or evidence of any shootdown.

Back in 2019, Chinese media outlets did report that a People’s Liberation Army Air Force J-10C fighter jet had shot down a high-altitude balloon with a PL-10 air-to-air missile after determining it to be a potential hazard.

What is clear already is that there are concerning objects of various types flying at relatively high altitudes over the United States, as well as Canada, on an at least somewhat regular basis. On top of that, NSC spokesperson Kirby’s statements on the objective of the newly announced working group on these issues is a tacit admission that the U.S. government, at least, does not even have a firm handle on what amounts to a baseline level of high-altitude activity over the United States, innocuous or not.

The fact that changing the filter ‘gates’ on radars in North America has turned up an apparently substantial amount of ‘new’ activity certainly raises questions about how many things akin to China’s high-altitude surveillance program have gone effectively ignored for decades and what broader risks that reality might present. In addition, the Pentagon and the various services have for years now said that they are committed to taking the matter of UAPs more seriously from a national security perspective. This makes it hard not to wonder why it appears that these new policies and procedures that are turning up previously unknown airspace incursions are only being implemented now.

There are also now questions about how sustainable NORAD’s apparent new high-tempo policies for reacting to these incursions may be. This would all seem to be in line with U.S. officials stressing the new need to get a better sense of what the entire threat picture looks like and what does and doesn’t warrant a kinetic response.

All of this applies beyond North America and to countries outside of the United States, too. With U.S. military interest in similar capabilities only growing, potential American adversaries will likely have to address the same kinds of questions going forward.

U.S. policies and protocols for how to handle these kinds of aerial threats, or at least potential threats, will clearly continue to evolve in the coming weeks and months. Whatever does or doesn’t change when it comes to these policies and protocols, North America’s airspace is already being scrutinized very differently.

UPDATE: 8:45 P.M. EST:

Canadian officials have given a new “technical” briefing on details about the four objects that have been shot down in airspace over North America since February 4 and the ongoing recovery efforts.

Canadian Forces Maj. Gen. Paul Prevost, Director of Staff for the country’s Strategic Joint Staff reiterated that the first object has been confirmed to be a Chinese government surveillance balloon, but that “the subsequent three cannot be officially characterized or attributed at this time.” He had no details to share about any potential payloads or capabilities they might have had.

Maj. Gen. Prevost did describe the three other objects as “lighter-than-air” craft that were all different in their exact configurations and that had no obvious external propulsion systems. The evidence so far suggests that they were following wind patterns as they transited across North America. He did disclose the object shot down over Lake Huron had been first detected in the southern end of Canada’s Alberta province before crossing into U.S. airspace and moving east.

Maj. Gen. Prevost also said that Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighter jets were not tasked to shoot down any of the objects. He insisted that this was not necessarily because of any specific limitations in their capabilities and was in part due to their exact location at the time of the incidents. The Royal Canadian Air Force’s CF-18s cannot currently employ the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile, which is the weapon that U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-16C Viper fighter jets used to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon and the other three objects.

In this context, it is worth noting that various outlets have now reported that the first AIM-9X fired at the object over Lake Huron yesterday missed, citing anonymous U.S. officials. The War Zone had reported yesterday that this was likely the case based on pictures of the F-16Cs involved in the shootdown returning to base indicating two Sidewinders had been expended.

Canadian security forces, including elements of the Canadian military, the Canadian Coast Guard, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), are now supporting recovery efforts in the Yukon and Lake Huron.

With regards to the recovery operation in the Yukon specifically, Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) is leading the military component of the response, which involves personnel on the ground and air assets, according to Maj. Gen. Prevost. In a separate statement, Canadian Minister of National Defence Anita Anand said that the Royal Canadian Air Force was providing one CC-130H Hercules and two CC-138 Twin Otter fixed-wing aircraft, as well as two helicopters, one CH-148 Cyclone and one CH-149 Cormorant.

Maj. Gen. Prevost said that “wind models” were being used to help determine the exact location of remains of the object shot down in the Yukon. He added that the initial assessment is that the majority of debris is located within a 3,000-square-kilometer area (approximately 1,158 square miles).

Sean McGillis, Acting Deputy Commissioner for the Federal Policing Program at the RCMP said that the recovery work in the Yukon has been hampered so far by poor weather and difficult terrain. The broad area where the remains of the object came down is mountainous and currently blanketed in heavy snow.

In the case of the Lake Huron incident, that object was downed over U.S. airspace, but it is unclear what side of the border the debris is now on, according to Maj. Gen. Prevost and Marc-Andre Meunier, Assistant Commission for the Canadian Coast Guard’s Central Region.

Meunier said that the Canadian Coast Guard’s CCGS Griffon, a multi-purpose ice-capable ship, is now in the area supporting that recovery operation. He added that Griffon had a “drone” onboard that could be used, weather permitting, but it’s unclear if what he was referring to is an uncrewed aerial system or an uncrewed underwater vehicle. Two unspecified Canadian Coast Guard helicopters are also working the scene.

In both cases, the recovery efforts are being conducted in close coordination with U.S. authorities. This includes the U.S. Coast Guard’s District 9 on the Great Lakes and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The RCMP’s McGillis did concede that the recovery of a substantial portion of either the Yukon or the one that fell into Lake Huron was not guaranteed.

Altogether, “these unprecedented activities have underscored how important our binational military command continues to be and how important it is that NORAD continue to evolve to meet the changing threat environment,” Maj. Gen. Prevost said. He added that all four objects were “unwanted” and “unauthorized,” and that this had made them a cause “of concern.”

In response to a question about whether or not the three still uncharacterized and unattributed objects could have been civilian or commercial in nature, Maj. Gen. Prevost said that there are procedures in place that legitimate non-military operators are supposed to follow to help avoid any such instances of mistaken identity. At the same time, neither he nor any of the other officials taking part in the press conference would speculate as to the origins of any of the three objects.

Like his American counterparts, Maj. Gen. Prevost said that it remains unclear whether this recent activity represents an entirely new trend of some kind or simply reflects increased scrutiny. He said that efforts were being made to gather more information in order to make an assessment in this regard.

The full Canadian government briefing can be viewed below.

Howard Altman contributed to this story.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

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.