The discovery of a string of mysterious airborne objects over Canada and the United States in recent days is partly the result of increased detection capabilities that NORAD put in place after the appearance of a Chinese high-altitude spy balloon last month, the White House says.
“One of the reasons we think we’re seeing more is that we’re looking for more,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said at a White House briefing on Monday.
Sunday marked the fourth time in nine days that fighter jets were scrambled to fire on flying objects appearing unexpectedly in the air over North America. A U.S. F-16 shot down an object over Lake Huron, which Canadian Major-General Paul Prevost on Monday referred to as a “suspected balloon.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in Whitehorse on Monday, said the spate of unknown flying objects suggests “some sort of pattern” but declined to elaborate.
“This is a very serious situation that we are taking incredibly seriously,” Mr. Trudeau said. “The importance of defending our territorial integrity, our sovereignty has rarely been as important as it is now.”
The drama began in late January when a high-altitude balloon drifted across Alaska and Western Canada before traversing the continental U.S.; it was brought down off the Carolina coast by an American fighter plane on Feb. 4. China claimed it as its own but said it was merely a weather balloon that had drifted off course. The U.S. said it was built for espionage.
In a briefing on Monday, the White House said that the Chinese military has been running a spy program using high-altitude balloons for several years, but that the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), the joint U.S.-Canada air-defence system, did not pick up on it until relatively recently.
China, for its part, countered with accusations of its own, saying U.S. high-altitude balloons had flown over its airspace without permission more than 10 times since the beginning of 2022 – a claim that Washington immediately rejected.
“This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control,” Adrienne Watson, a White House national security spokesperson, said in a statement.
China said on Feb. 13 that U.S. high altitude balloons had flown over its airspace without permission more than 10 times since the beginning of 2022, drawing a swift denial from Washington.
Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Beijing had no information about the other three objects shot down in recent days. On Feb. 10, a U.S. jet brought down one object, described as “about the size of a small car” off the Alaskan coast. On Feb. 11, an American fighter took down another object, described as cylindrical in shape, over central Yukon. On Feb. 12, a U.S. warplane took down a fourth object, described by CNN as octagonal in shape, over Lake Huron.
“We believe that no irresponsible comments should be made when there is no clear evidence. And we are absolutely opposed to made-up stories and smears against China,” Mr. Wang told reporters in Beijing.
On Monday, Mr. Trudeau defended how a U.S. fighter jet – rather than a Canadian warplane – took down the mysterious flying object over Yukon on Saturday, suggesting one of Canada’s CF-18s could have made the shot if it had the first opportunity.
“Our focus was not on which side gets credit,” he said.
The RCMP is leading the search for the object shot down over Yukon. Sean McGillis, executive director of federal policing strategic management for the Mounties, told reporters it’s possible it may never be recovered. The search area is 3,000 square kilometres, he said.
“It is unfortunately very rugged and mountainous terrain,” Mr. McGillis said. “There’s a very high level of snowpack in the region. So our efforts are going to be difficult, they will be challenging, they will take us some time.”
The Royal Canadian Air Force is helping and has deployed a CC-130H Hercules, two CC-138 Twin Otters, a CH-148 Cyclone and a CH-149 Cormorant aircraft to assist.
Canada is also working with the U.S. to find the object shot down over Lake Huron.
A Canadian coast guard icebreaker, CCGS Griffon, arrived at the search area Monday afternoon, said Matt Dillon, a spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray. A drone is onboard with an operator to help scour the waters. Griffon replaced another Canadian icebreaker, CCGS Samuel Risley, that was originally tasked to go but encountered a problem with its radar. Two Canadian Coast Guard helicopters remain on standby in Parry Sound, Ont., to assist if needed.
In both searches, Canada is bringing along personnel experienced in dealing with explosives, biological and radiological hazards as a precaution.
Details of the last three objects shot down remain sketchy. The Canadian government declined to say if it had obtained photos of the one shot down over Yukon. CNN reported Monday that the object shot down in Canadian airspace on Saturday appeared to be a “small, metallic balloon with a tethered payload below it,” according to a Pentagon memo sent to U.S. lawmakers.
“It’s clearly objects that are lighter in the air,” Canadian Maj.-Gen. Prevost said Monday. “We cannot see any propulsion system at this time. They might be balloons. Finding these objects will help us find a bit more on what they are and how they move around.”
Defence Minister Anita Anand said Saturday the object brought down over Yukon was “potentially similar” to the suspected Chinese spy downed off the coast of South Carolina.
Mr. Kirby said the Chinese balloon program goes back at least as far as the administration of former U.S. president Donald Trump and has flown over several countries. So far, he said, officials do not believe the balloons have been very useful to China in picking up new information, but they could ultimately become an intelligence threat if they continue.
Such objects – high in the stratosphere and moving slowly – are difficult to detect on radar, Mr. Kirby said. NORAD recently changed its monitoring specifically to search for such objects. This may help explain why the air-defence system has located and shot down four objects in just the past week and a half.
So far, he said, the U.S. government has not been able to confirm what the most recent three shot-down objects were because the wreckage has not yet been recovered. One was shot down over the frozen Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, another over boreal forest in the Yukon and a third over Lake Huron. Canadian authorities have said that shootdown took place in U.S. airspace, but Mr. Kirby said the wreckage appears to have sunk in Canadian waters, and the Canadian Coast Guard is currently searching.
The U.S. has been able to recover some wreckage from a Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina but rough seas have prevented more recovery on Monday.
Unlike the spy balloon, Mr. Kirby said, the three subsequent objects “weren’t being controlled” and were drifting with the wind around the same level as commercial flights, making them potential safety hazards.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre moved to rule out one hypothesis that has so far dominated internet speculation – if in a somewhat joking manner.
“There is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” she said to laughter.
With reports from Reuters and The Canadian Press