The rise in US fighter jets shooting down unidentified aerial objects over North America is no coincidence. Instead, it comes at a time when the US and Canadian militaries have intensified their scrutiny of all flying objects in the wake of an initial 4 February shootdown of a suspected spy balloon from China. It also comes after years of military reports on mysterious incidents filed under the catch-all term unidentified aerial phenomena.
“This isn’t new,” says Brynn Tannehill at the RAND Corporation, a think tank based in California. “I suspect that filters on US systems had previously been ignoring things that were too slow, high or small to be considered threats.”
Military radar systems operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) – a military organisation operated by the US and Canada – are now seeing more of what was already out there after being adjusted to have greater sensitivity. That has led to several additional flying objects being tracked and shot down within the span of days, with White House officials describing them as posing a threat to civilian air traffic.
Glen VanHerck, commander of NORAD, has also described the possibility of looking back through unfiltered radar data to spot additional such flying objects.
NORAD currently relies on cold-war era radar stations to monitor North American airspace. Canada plans to spend almost CAN$40 billion over the next two decades on a NORAD modernisation program, including CAN$7 billion dedicated to radar systems and other sensors that could track potential threats from the Canada-US border to the Arctic circle.
US military officials have not yet publicly confirmed the origin of the flying objects beyond the original Chinese-launched surveillance balloon. But in a press conference the White House dismissed any theories about aliens being involved. “There is no indication of aliens or extra-terrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, a White House spokesperson.
The Pentagon had been tracking unidentified aerial phenomena witnessed by US military personnel even before the shootdowns. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence previously found that balloons accounted for 163 of 366 phenomena – the most common explanation by far – in its 2022 annual report.
Another 26 of those phenomena were characterised as drones, and six were described as “clutter” such as birds, weather events or plastic bags.
US officials have so far only identified the first object shot down on 4 February as being a surveillance balloon launched by China. The New York Times found that one of China’s leading scientists had openly described sending a steerable balloon on journey around most of the world – including passing over North America – in 2019.
China’s foreign ministry has described the balloon as being wayward meteorological equipment. It also claimed that the US has flown high-altitude balloons over China more than 10 times since the beginning of 2022 – something that the White House has flatly denied.
Identifying the origin of the latest flying objects may not be easy, especially if they were built with commercial off-the-shelf parts. “If someone threw a clock-radio at you and the broken parts inside said ‘Made in China’, it doesn’t mean that China threw it at you,” says Tannehill. She described the White House as being “caught between rapid response and getting the facts right”.