Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
On the morning of Jan. 31, Matthew Falle heard some confusing sounds while working at a remote ski lodge in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. The lodge, nestled among snow-covered peaks, is usually a quiet place – but Mr. Falle couldn’t ignore the persistent noise of what sounded like distant airplane engines. “It was overcast that day, so I couldn’t actually see any planes,” the 22-year-old told me in an interview. “But the ongoing humming was hard to ignore.”
Thanks to publicly available flight-tracking data, we now know that several Royal Canadian Air Force planes were flying over the Selkirk Mountains that day. A CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft from CFB Comox on Vancouver Island spent several hours in the area; these kinds of planes are equipped with powerful sensors that can provide high-resolution images of objects on the ground, the ocean or in the sky. A CC-150 Polaris air-to-air refuelling tanker was also present; it flew in from CFB Cold Lake in Alberta, where many CF-18 fighter jets are based.
We do not know for certain that CF-18s were with the Polaris because they cannot be tracked with this data. But the tanker was almost certainly not refuelling the long-endurance Aurora. And what we do know is that a Chinese surveillance balloon passed above central B.C. that day.
That airship became the subject of intense international intrigue over the weekend. The balloon reportedly passed through Alaska, B.C. and Idaho before being spotted over Montana, which is home to one of the United States’ three nuclear missile silo fields. Beijing insisted the balloon was strictly for weather science and that it had been blown off-course, but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled his planned trip to China all the same.
Parsing the flight-tracking data offers some idea of Canada’s role in this incident. It appears that the Royal Canadian Air Force took a very good look at the balloon, concluded that it posed no threat, and informed the Canadian government, which decided not to shoot it down. This likely all took place in co-ordination with Washington, which had already made the same decision, having detected the balloon as it entered U.S. airspace west of Alaska several days before. That decision makes sense; after all, even in remote regions, there are people – like Matthew Falle – who could be killed or injured by falling debris.
And so the U.S. waited until the balloon passed over the coast of South Carolina, whereupon it struck the helium-filled envelope – and not the surveillance and manoeuvring platform suspended below it – with a single Sidewinder missile from an F-22 fighter jet.
The precisely timed and targeted strike, combined with closures of the airspace and ocean waters below it, ensured that the platform fell harmlessly into the United States’ 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. Soon, the equipment will be recovered – and thanks in large part to this careful approach, it may be largely intact. The Chinese technology will be of considerable interest to the U.S. military.
High-altitude balloons offer some advantages over satellites. They cost less to build and launch, and this balloon was able to both manoeuvre and loiter. Their principal disadvantage is that they operate in the atmosphere, and therefore in what international law considers to be sovereign airspace. If they overfly another state without permission, they can legally be shot down.
An intruding balloon can also be legally captured and brought back to the surface intact. The technology to do this does not yet exist, but it seems likely that U.S. military engineers will now be tasked with developing an airship for this purpose. The next time a Chinese balloon ventures into U.S. airspace, it could end up on display in Washington’s National Air and Space Museum.
U.S. President Joe Biden has been criticized for allowing the Chinese balloon to fly across the United States for days before ordering it shot down. Republicans have argued that the delay made him look weak.
However, the audience that matters most is Chinese President Xi Jinping, and he is more likely to see the co-ordinated responses by both Canada and the U.S. as a show of strength.
Shooting a balloon down is easy. But taking time to assess the situation, adopt a measured approach, avoid risks to one’s own citizens, assert sovereignty and seize the opportunity to acquire your opponent’s latest technologies? Doing all these things together is remarkably hard – especially when the crisis has become public, and everyone is calling for you to just pop the darn thing and move on.