The downing of a Chinese spy balloon over U.S. airspace has forced a rapid recalibration in how the military monitors, tracks and responds to threats from above.
The Defense Department said that after the Chinese spy balloon flew over much of the U.S. earlier this month before being shot down, the military began paying closer attention to lower-altitude flying objects.
That led to the detection and elimination of three UFOs in the span of three days over the weekend.
The Biden administration announced this week the formation of an interagency task force to investigate the UFOs. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said one of the team’s new tasks will be to examine how they will respond to future aerial objects.
“We’re going to learn from these three events,” Kirby told reporters on Monday.
Bruce McClintock, the head of RAND Corporation’s Space Enterprise Initiative, said the Biden administration likely “overcorrected” on the weekend UFO shoot-downs after the Chinese spy balloon incident. But he believes the focus on lower-altitude objects is here to stay.
The remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina. (Chad Fish via AP, File)
One debate right now is whether to use the Space Surveillance Network, which tracks and monitors objects in outer space, to help detect these lower-altitude threats above North America.
But there is a trade-off, McClintock warned.
“The lower you tune down things to pick up smaller objects … the more likely you are to have these kinds of false alarms,” he said. “It’s not like any nation, including the United States, has unlimited bandwidth to look for these objects. They have to make decisions about where to focus their sensors.”
Enhanced surveillance would first have to start with a broader strategy on airspace engagement, said Andrew Chanin, the CEO and co-founder of ProcureAM, which manages an exchange-traded fund on the stock market investing in space and UFO detection technology.
Chanin said the Pentagon, along with allied nations that have also become aware of Chinese spy balloon incursions, may have “to develop some type of strategy for detecting, monitoring, tracking and ultimately removing or downing” UFOs.
“It’s going to be something that’s a global demand,” he said. “Areas that we might have to bulk up our spending on are things like satellites, sensors, ground stations.”
UFOs flying through U.S. airspace are not new, with eyewitness accounts and photographs of strange aerial craft dating back decades.
While before there was a stigma in reporting these sightings, the U.S. government is now taking them seriously, and Congress recently passed legislation to form a new office to investigate what officials now refer to as unidentified aerial phenomenon.
But the spy balloon and the subsequent UFO takedowns this month accelerated scrutiny around the flurry of strange objects buzzing across the sky.
A leading theory from the White House is that the UFOs were deployed for commercial or benign purposes, which has led to some head-scratching over why the U.S. was not already aware of the source of the objects.
Kari Bingen, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. “needs to get to the bottom of this” and enhance data collection and sharing.
“The intelligence community has been very stove-piped in how they treat data,” Bingen said. “Do they have data that can be brought to bear and then objects ruled out or taken off the table? Do allies and partners have information that could be useful? I think a lot of that, that piece, there really needs to be attention.”
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a binational agency serving both Canada and the U.S. that operates from a headquarters at Peterson Air Force base in Colorado, is responsible for monitoring the skies above the continent.
The agency employs a network of satellites, ground-based radar, airborne radar and aircraft to detect and respond to any potential threats.
NORAD primarily works from three regional operations at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, Canadian Forces Base in Winnipeg and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
After the hefty Chinese spy balloon was taken down off the coast of South Carolina, NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck admitted that at least four previous spy balloons had flown over the U.S. undetected and were only discovered retroactively.
VanHerck called it a “domain awareness gap,” raising concerns the U.S. lacked the ability to track balloons or other surveillance devices.
Intelligence officials then detected the past three UFOs last weekend after tweaking the radar system to scan more closely at lower altitudes and for balloons and other less conspicuous flying objects.
There were two previous issues with radar detection, according to analysts in the airspace field.
The first is the military was looking for specific threats, such as missiles or long-range bomber planes, typically at higher altitudes. The second is when scanning at higher altitudes, the radars were not tuned to find flying objects like balloons.
In order to analyze wide swaths of objects flying at different altitudes, NORAD might need an adjustment, such as deploying a greater number of detection systems or more powerful ones.
Jon Gruen, the CEO of Fortem Technologies, a company that develops systems to counter drone incursions and works closely with the Defense Department, compared it to a flashlight: You could shine a narrow beam that can see up to 20 feet, or a wider beam that can see for up to 10 feet but capture more area.
“What we are realizing right now is there needs to be greater air awareness systems tracking at different altitudes at different ranges to see smaller objects,” Gruen said. “We’re seeing simple balloons and airborne platforms tripping in from all different types of locations. It’s changing, so we’ve got to adapt to those changes.”
Another concern in the airspace awareness community is how the U.S. can shift its response to a detected balloon or UFO.
The Chinese spy balloon and the three UFOs shot down over the weekend were taken out by fighter jets that fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile — each of which comes with a price tag of about $400,000.
The missiles also brought down the objects over difficult terrain, including a deep lake in Michigan and the icy waters over Alaska, complicating retrieval efforts that will help understand the UFOs better.
If there was a more effective rule of engagement policy and method to down and capture the UFOs more safely, collection and analysis efforts would be easier.
“They need to get their hands on the balloons, on the unidentified objects, and learn from them,” said Bingen, adding “we need to be careful we are not expending limited stocks of missiles on every single object, whether it’s known or unknown.”