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U.S. Airspace Has Suddenly Become a Shooting Gallery: Updates

A U.S. F-22 Raptor. Photo: Lucas Aguayo Araos/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. has now shot down three unidentified high-altitude objects in as many days, one week after downing an alleged Chinese spy balloon after it traveled across the country. One object was shot down over Alaska on Friday, then another over Canada on Saturday, and yet another over Michigan on Sunday. It is not yet clear if these objects were in any way linked to China or its alleged high-altitude surveillance program, but at least some of them appeared to be balloons, according the U.S. officials. Below is more on this sudden shooting gallery in the sky and what the objects may have been, as well as what we’ve learned about China’s spy balloons and the U.S. response, with the most recent updates appearing first.

U.S. has apparently recovered some of the earlier spy balloon’s payload from the Atlantic

While no debris has yet been recovered from any of the three objects shot down over the weekend, the U.S. has apparently made progress recovering a key piece of the wreckage from the alleged Chinese spy ballon downed on February 4. ABC News reports that a crane ship off the coast of South Carolina “has picked up a significant portion of the balloon’s payload that measured as much as 30 feet long and had all of craft’s tech gear and antennas, a U.S. official said Monday.”

China accuses U.S. of illegal balloon trespassing too

China’s Foreign Ministry claimed Monday that ten U.S. balloons have illegally flown across Chinese airspace since early 2022. “The U.S. needs to reflect upon itself and change its wrong practice,” a spokesman said, adding, “We reserve the right to take necessary means to deal with relevant incidents.”

A U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman later denied the allegation. “Any claim that the U.S. government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false,” she said.

Military has more questions than answers about objects

On Sunday night, Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton and NORAD commander General Glen VanHerck spoke with reporters about the unprecedented object shoot downs, but didn’t offer much in the way of new information, insisting they had not reached firm conclusions about the objects. VanHerck mainly explained that all three objects were not considered “kinetic military threats” but were still deemed worth shooting down because they both posed a potential risk to civil air traffic and had potentially been surveilling sensitive Defense Department sites. He also noted that the military does not know how the three objects flew:

It’s not an alien invasion, the Biden administration privately insists

With U.S. fighter jets now blowing unidentified odd-shaped objects out of the sky every day, it’s no surprise that many people are openly wondering whether or not America has just started an interstellar war. But whatever truth is out there regarding the objects, the Biden administration is apparently insisting these airborne trespassers are terrestrial in origin. Per the New York Times on Sunday:

The incursions seemed to become so common that Biden administration officials have found themselves issuing private assurances that there is no evidence that they involve extraterrestrial activity. But officials also acknowledge privately that the longer they are unable to provide a public explanation for the provenance of the objects, the more speculation grows.

On Sunday night, U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck told reporters that, regarding the possible E.T. threat, “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.”

On Monday, the White House publicly dismissed the alien talk:

It’s a good thing everyone trusts the U.S. government to be totally honest about such things.

Yet another unidentified object shot down over Michigan

A U.S. F-16 shot down another unidentified aerial object over Lake Huron on Sunday afternoon. A senior administration official told the Washington Post that the object was unmanned and posed no threat. It was apparently flying at 20,000 feet, which is half the altitude of the earlier objects shot down Friday and Saturday. Those objects were apparently cylindrical, while the third one had a “octagonal structure,” the U.S. official told the Post.

In what has now become a recurring explanation for these events, President Biden’s decision to authorize the shoot-down was made “out of an abundance of caution” since the object potentially posed a risk to commercial air traffic, officials say. And once again, a recovery operation is currently underway to locate and analyze the debris.

The object was apparently the same one which was spotted over Montana late Saturday night, prompting the FAA to briefly close down part of the airspace above Havre near the Canadian border. NORAD said in a statement on Saturday night that it scrambled fighter planes to investigate the object after it was detected on radar, but that they “did not identify any object to correlate to the radar hits.” One U.S. lawmaker in Montana later suggested in a tweet that the object’s presence had been confirmed, however.

It was picked up radar again on Sunday in the skies over Wisconsin and Michigan. The Pentagon also said in a statement that when the object was over Montana, it had flown “in proximity to sensitive DOD sites.”

Is NORAD suddenly better at detecting these things?

The U.S. has newly adjusted its approach to monitoring the skies, according to a U.S. official who spoke with the Washington Post:

The incursions in the past week have changed how analysts receive and interpret information from radars and sensors, a U.S. official said Saturday, partly addressing a key question of why so many objects have recently surfaced. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that sensory equipment absorbs a lot of raw data, and filters are used so humans and machines can make sense of what is collected. But that process always runs the risk of leaving out something important, the official said.

“We basically opened the filters,” the official added, much like a buyer unchecking boxes on a car website to broaden the parameters of what can be searched. That change does not yet fully answer what is going on, the official cautioned, and whether stepping back to look at more data is yielding more hits — or if this is part of a more deliberate action by an unknown country or adversary.

A second unidentified object was shot down on Saturday over Canada

A U.S. fighter plane shot down a second unidentified high-altitude object on Saturday in Canadian airspace over Yukon. According to NORAD, the object was first spotted late Friday night and briefly entered U.S. airspace, at which point two U.S. F-22s were sent to monitor it. It moved into Canadian airspace on Saturday, and President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau authorized shooting it down.

In a Saturday evening news conference, Canadian defense minister Anita Anand said it was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight.” She also described it as “potentially similar to the one shot down off the coast of North Carolina though smaller in size and cylindrical in nature.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that “the latest object appeared to be a small metallic balloon with a tethered payload … according to U.S. officials familiar with the situation.” A U.S. official who spoke with the Washington Post said that both objects were the size of a small car, but “slightly different in profile”:

“All of the objects are similar in certain ways and then dramatically different in certain ways. What we don’t yet understand is what sorts of technology are in there,” the official said. “Really capable technology can be very small and portable. So the size doesn’t tell us a whole lot.”

As with the object shot down on Friday over Alaska, which was flying at the same altitude, it’s not clear where it came from. Trudeau said in a statement that the Canadian forces were working to retrieve and analyze the wreckage, which he and Biden agreed was essential to understanding what it was.

The U.S. National Security Council said in a statement on Saturday that “Out of an abundance of caution and at the recommendation of their militaries, President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau authorized it to be taken down.”

What did the U.S. shoot down over Alaska?

The Defense Department said Saturday that it still couldn’t identify the object a U.S. fighter plane downed over Alaska on Friday. The object was at an altitude of about 40,000 feet over frozen U.S. territorial waters off the coast of northeast Alaska, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby announced in a White House press briefing. President Biden gave the order after being advised by the Pentagon that the object might pose a risk to civilian aircraft.

The origin and purpose of the object is unclear, but Kirby said it was much smaller — about the size of a small car — than the spy balloon last week and did not appear to have the same maneuverability. “There’s no indication it’s from a nation or an institution or an individual,” Kirby said.

U.S. fighter planes with the Northern Command assessed the object on Thursday night before Biden was briefed, then again on Friday morning — with the military ultimately concluding it was unmanned. An F-22 shot it down, and the U.S. is working to recover the debris from the object, which fell on the ice.

The U.S. has blacklisted six Chinese entities over spy balloon program

The Biden administration on Friday blacklisted six Chinese entities — five companies and one research institute — over their alleged “support to China’s military modernization efforts, specifically the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) aerospace programs including airships and balloons.” The restrictions mean companies won’t be able to sell the entities U.S. technology and parts without first obtaining special permission.

Last week’s spy balloon had Western-made components

Bloomberg reports that the Biden administration told U.S. lawmakers this week in a closed-door briefing that some components of the downed balloon had English-language writing on them — suggesting they were manufactured in the West:

The presence of the components was described by several of the people, who declined to elaborate further on exactly which ones were Western-made. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the writing was discovered before the balloon was shot down Saturday or found in the wreckage afterward. Recovery operations for the balloon’s payload continued off the coast of South Carolina.

U.S. says spy balloon is part of massive Chinese surveillance program targeting 40 countries

U.S. officials say that China’s military has, for years, used a fleet of balloons equipped with surveillance technology to conduct high-altitude espionage across the globe, and that the balloons have gathered intelligence on 40 countries across five continents. The U.S. used U-2 spy planes to photograph the spy balloon while it was over the country last week and those images revealed that the balloon was equipped with “multiple antennas … likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications,” a State Department official told reporters on Thursday. It was designed, in other words, to pinpoint and listen in on communications — though the U.S. says it prevented the balloon from doing that last week.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported additional details about the program:

The surveillance balloon effort, which has operated for several years partly out of Hainan province off China’s south coast, has collected information on military assets in countries and areas of emerging strategic interest to China including Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, according to several U.S. officials …

Analysts still don’t know the size of the balloon fleet, but there have been “dozens” of missions since 2018, said one U.S. official. They take advantage of technology provided by a private Chinese company that is part of the country’s civil-military fusion effort — a program by which private companies develop technologies and capabilities used by the PLA.

The officials told the Post that the balloons are equipped with electrooptical sensors for obtaining imagery, as well as radio and satellite transmitters, and that the Pentagon was able to obtain valuable intelligence when observing the spy balloon last week using a variety of aircraft. U.S. officials have also acknowledged that previous incursions by these spy balloons into U.S. airspace have gone undetected:

U.S. intelligence analysts have retroactively identified as spy balloons objects that were previously deemed unidentified, according to U.S. officials. New technologies have enabled the detection of measurement and signature intelligence, or MASINT, which typically includes information about radar or electromagnetic signals, such as those that might be emitted by surveillance balloons.

The spy balloon traveled over multiple sensitive U.S. military sites

NBC News made a map of the several U.S. Air Force bases the balloon flew over or near, including Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base, Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base, and Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base:

This post has been updated.

Why Is U.S. Airspace Suddenly a Shooting Gallery? Updates