U.S. Shoots Down 3 Aerial Objects in 3 Days
President Joe Biden hasn’t ordered this many shots since his last COVID booster. On Friday, on Saturday, and again on Sunday, U.S. aircraft shot down aerial objects that had intruded into U.S. and Canadian airspace uninvited. The incidents come merely a week after a colossal Chinese spy balloon crossed the entire country before the Biden administration shot it down, and after the military admitted at least four previously undisclosed incursions by Chinese balloons.
Biden’s busy weekend began on Thursday, when North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) ground radar detected an object flying off the coast of Alaska. Aircraft confirmed the object’s location and determined that it was unmanned. “At the direction of the president,” an F-22 shot down the VW Beetle-sized object near Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. “The object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder.
Ryder had “no further details about the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose or origin.” Complicating the military’s efforts to recover the object are its location (on sea ice), weather (high of -31 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday), and daylight conditions (approximately seven hours long).
Late Friday evening, NORAD detected another aerial object that was already “over Alaska.” American and Canadian aircraft monitored the object, cooperating closely as NORAD allies. With Canadian permission, a U.S. F-22 shot it down over a remote and rugged part of the Yukon Territory around midday on Saturday. According to Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand, the object was flying at 40,000 feet, was cylindrical in shape, and was similar in appearance to the spy balloon shot down on February 4, although much smaller.
While U.S. jets were still tailing the aerial object through the Yukon, NORAD detected another radar anomaly more than 1,000 miles away, over Havre, Montana. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily closed airspace over the town. Fighter aircraft were scrambled to investigate, but they “did not identify any object to correlate to the radar hits,” said NORAD and U.S. Northern Command.
On Sunday afternoon, the FAA closed U.S. airspace again, this time over the northern third of Lake Michigan, giving notice that it was “national defense airspace.” Hours later, “at the direction of President Biden,” an F-16 shot down an octagonal, aerial object flying at approximately 20,000 feet over Lake Huron.
The Pentagon shot it down because they assessed that “it was a safety flight hazard and a threat due to its potential surveillance capabilities.” Isn’t it funny how the definition of a “threat” and the standard for shooting things down can change in a fortnight?
NORAD “detected the object Sunday morning,” explained the Department of Defense [DOD] in a statement. But they added, “Based on its flight path and data we can reasonably connect this object to the radar signal picked up over Montana, which flew in proximity to sensitive DOD sites.”
In this last incident, the military lost track of the object over Montana and didn’t find it again until it was 1,000 miles away. Possibly its lower altitude contributed to its radar-dodging capabilities. Possibly its shape played a role. In any event, “what we are seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section,” said NORAD commander General Glen VanHerck.
“At this point we continue to assess every threat or potential threat, unknown, that approaches North America with an attempt to identify it,” said VanHerck. That’s meant to sound reassuring, but the disclosures of the past two weeks give it a hollow ring. Recent events have demonstrated that 1) the U.S. military cannot detect every potential foreign threat before it violates U.S. airspace, 2) the U.S. military is not willing to shoot down foreign spy vessels above U.S. soil, and 3) sometimes the U.S. military does not detect foreign intrusions until long afterward. Does that not send a shiver up your spine?
Indeed, the military seems to recognize they have screwed up royally. “The incursions in the past week have changed how analysts receive and interpret information from radars and sensors,” The Washington Post paraphrased an unnamed official on Saturday. “Sensory equipment absorbs a lot of raw data, and filters are used so humans and machines can make sense of what is collected. … ‘We basically opened the filters,’ the official added.”
National Review’s Jeffrey Blehar summarized this admission, “In other words, America created the world’s most technologically sophisticated geostrategic advance-warning defensive system to guard its airspace and then put it on the wrong setting. And in so doing allowed our enemies to exploit our blindness for an unknown period of time, with an unknown amount of data collected.”
It’s good that the military is working to correct their gross blunders. But the question remains, how did the world’s (supposedly) greatest military allow such inexcusable oversights to occur in the first place?
One answer might lie in the military’s obsession with shiny, new gadgets over functional, practical equipment. The situation is analogous to an uncrackable, bio-locked safe that can be rendered useless by a simple hammer, or to a cash register that can accept payment with the touch of a card or phone, but not cash. Our military ventured boldly into the 21st Century — so entirely that it forgot to check for 19th-Century technology. But this answer cannot explain the failure entirely; after all, when the military “opened the filters,” they grew wise to previously unheeded objects.
So another answer is needed — an answer grounded not in a mechanical oversight, but in a human one. Somehow, U.S. military personnel utterly failed to imagine that the Chinese military might employ cheap but dated technology to subtly reap intelligence on our sensitive military sites.
How did such a failure occur? Did they not see China as a major geopolitical rival and a threat to many of our allies? Did they not believe the reports that China is preparing for a war with the U.S.? Did they not take seriously the decades-long modernization of the People’s Liberation Army? Such suggestions are hard to believe.
Perhaps, instead, this failure of imagination was due to realigned priorities. Instead of imagining worst-case scenarios and how to counter them, perhaps our military’s best and brightest minds were turned toward imagining a more “inclusive,” progressive military.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened. While China was publicly launching warships (and perhaps secretly launching spy balloons), the U.S. military was launching guides on politically correct pronoun use. While China was likely scouring surveillance footage of our military bases for vulnerabilities, the U.S. military was scouring its ranks for Christian extremists. While China was fighting (and winning!) an asymmetrical information war, the U.S. military was fighting its own servicemembers over a pointless vaccine. America’s military has strayed so far from its mission that it completely lost sight of the true threat.
There is one piece of good news amid this string of encounters with unidentified flying objects. Despite vague comments by military spokesmen inciting rumors of extraterrestrial activity, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby clarified, “I don’t think the American people need to be worried about aliens. Period.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.