Standing at the White House podium on Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby sought to reassure the American public about the three targets the US had shot down in recent days.
“I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens,” Kirby said about the unidentified flying objects that were taken out over the weekend — over Alaska on Friday, Canada’s Yukon on Saturday and Lake Huron in Michigan on Sunday.
Kirby was not the first US official to confront questions about extraterrestrials. A day earlier, General Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), which has taken centre stage in recent operations, said he had “not ruled anything out” in determining the nature and origin of the objects.
The Pentagon has released some details about a suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina this month. But officials have struggled to explain a spate of aerial objects, sparking conspiracy theories and a diplomatic furore with Beijing.
Norad, known to the public mainly for its Santa tracker, scrambled jets in response to the three unexplained objects, which pilots could not identify because of the fighters’ higher relative speeds and the objects’ high altitude and size, roughly that of a small car.
“That’s a very small object, especially when fighters are flying at about 0.8 Mach [just under the speed of sound, about 614mph],” said Charlie Moore, a retired F-16 pilot, whose call sign was “Tuna”, and former deputy head of US Cyber Command. “So it can be very difficult to get good fidelity on exactly what these devices might be carrying or what they might be doing.”
Unlike with the alleged Chinese spy balloon — a 200ft tall craft with a payload the size of three school buses that spent a week over North America — Norad had less time to monitor the other objects, which were shot down relatively quickly.
US officials have said the three objects were roughly similar in size. Kirby said they appeared to have no propulsion capabilities or ability to manoeuvre and were likely “being moved by the prevailing winds”.
VanHerck on Sunday said he was not ready to call the objects “balloons”. But one person familiar with the situation said the US had concluded that at least two were balloons. Major General Paul Prévost, director of staff for the Canadian Strategic Joint Staff, called the object over Lake Huron a “suspected balloon”.
US and Canadian officials have stressed that they will struggle to draw conclusions until they retrieve debris from the three aircraft, an endeavour complicated by geography, terrain and treacherous weather conditions.
Prévost said the search area over the Yukon was 3,000 sq km. The object over Alaska fell on sea ice near Deadhorse, a northern town with Arctic weather conditions. Search teams have not determined where in Lake Huron the third object fell.
The White House is also facing questions about why the military is suddenly finding so many potential threats. US fighter jets under Norad shot down four objects in nine days after taking no “kinetic” action in North America over the command’s 65-year history.
Officials said part of the reason for the higher number of incidents was that Norad had enhanced its radar capabilities after the balloon incursion. Moore said early warning and surveillance systems had traditionally been optimised for craft below 50,000ft moving at relatively high speeds.
“Now we’re seeing things well above 50,000ft and that can [also] be completely stationary,” he said. “Those type of targets would have been filtered out in the past.”
“Now we’ve had to go back and recalibrate . . . our systems so that we’re making sure we’re seeing all those types of vehicles or targets. That has increased the number that we’re seeing,” he added.
David Deptula, a retired F-15 pilot who was deputy Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, said balloons posed particular challenges for existing radar systems.
“These balloons do not have a very high radar cross-section because they are made from thin material and there is not a lot of equipment on them, so they are difficult to detect,” said Deptula.
Recent incidents should be a “wake-up call”, he added. “Just like the Air Force, Norad has been underfunded and allowed to atrophy over the past 30 years.”
Prévost said the object over Lake Huron was first detected over southern Alberta, more than 1,000 miles away. Asked if that meant Canada had a “domain awareness gap”, he said: “There are gaps we’re turning our heads to now. They’re smaller in size and harder to find through air surveillance radar.”
Dennis Wilder, former head of China analysis at the CIA, said the US had been exposed by its inattention to potential threats in “near space” — roughly the area between 12 and 60 miles above sea level — as China increased activity.
“Everyone has been thinking about space as a big deal and so people have not been as focused on ‘near space’,” said Wilder. “This is partly because we haven’t been thinking about near space so much ourselves.”
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