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Three objects shot down over U.S., Canada may be ‘benign’

The incidents have forced U.S. military officials to weigh how aggressively they should respond to the onset of a new homeland security mission

An Air Force F-16 similar to this one took down an unidentified aerial object over Lake Huron on Sunday. A second F-16 fired a missile at the object and missed. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)
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The White House on Tuesday said the three unidentified objects shot down over the United States and Canada since Friday may have posed no threat to North American security, drawing the sharpest distinction yet between those flying anomalies and the suspected Chinese spy balloon that navigated for days over much of the country before the military brought it down.

John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said the U.S. intelligence community “will not dismiss as a possibility that these could be balloons that were simply tied to commercial or research entities and therefore benign. That very well could be, or could emerge, as a leading explanation here.”

The government’s preliminary assessment, which Kirby said could change once wreckage of the three objects is recovered, was disclosed moments after Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that a U.S. fighter jet had on Sunday fired a missile and missed while trying to take down one of the three devices as it passed over Lake Huron. Speaking to reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the general downplayed any risk associated with the miss, saying the missile landed “harmlessly” in the water.

Taken together, the revelations raised immediate questions about whether the Biden administration, which has faced blistering criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for its decision to let the Chinese balloon remain aloft for days, overreacted by taking such aggressive steps to down the smaller objects when, in the final analysis, they may prove to be largely innocuous.

“My hope,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “would be that we are much more aggressive about trying to make sure that objects are up there for legitimate scientific, weather or other purposes, and that there is a much better notification process with authorities. That seems to me to be a bit of a gap.”

Objects shot down in Alaska, Canada less advanced than Chinese balloon

The White House portrayed the decision-making in all four shoot-downs as sober-minded assessments made in conjunction with senior U.S. defense officials. The Pentagon, which has characterized the three smaller objects as a threat to commercial air traffic due to their low altitude relative to the Chinese balloon, recommended each of them, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.

The incidents — there was one on Friday over Alaska and another on Saturday over Canada’s Yukon Territory — have forced U.S. military officials to confront limitations in their detection equipment and weaponry, and weigh how they should respond to the onset of a new homeland security mission.

Milley said on Tuesday that the most important factor for the U.S. military as it examines response options “is to protect the American people.” Senior military officials, he said, must evaluate “the risk of the balloons themselves,” both in terms of national security and safety to civilian air traffic, and how the debris from any shoot-downs are likely to impact Earth.

“We go to great lengths to make sure that the airspace is clear and the backdrop is clear … to the max effective range of the missile,” Milley said, in disclosing the miss above Lake Huron on Sunday. “We tracked it all the way down. And we made sure that the airspace was clear of any commercial, civilian or recreational traffic. We do the same thing for the maritime space. So we’re very, very deliberate in our planning.”

U.S. officials did not disclose in news conferences held Sunday and Monday that it required two missile shots to take out the object. Milley addressed a reporter’s question about the matter after it had been reported by Fox News.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on Feb. 14 said that a missile fired to shoot down an aerial object missed and "landed harmlessly." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Olivier Matthys/AP/The Washington Post)

A senior U.S. defense official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains sensitive, said a pair of F-16 fighter jets were involved in Sunday’s encounter, with each launching a heat-seeking AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. The first failed to detect the airborne object, so it lost track of the target and “did not fuse,” the official said. It landed in Lake Huron moments later.

The official said senior U.S. military commanders “took extreme caution” to ensure there was “limited collateral damage,” working with the Federal Aviation Administration to clear out the airspace. Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, also directed responding pilots to check for nearby aircraft, the official said.

The rapidly evolving issue has created a sense of urgency for the Pentagon. U.S. military officials said in interviews that a variety of options are under discussion for future incidents, including the deployment of slow-moving unmanned aircraft to respond or the use of sea-launched missiles, such as the Navy’s SM-6, which would allow the military to pick off unidentified objects before they are over U.S. soil.

The military’s ability to respond to balloons and similar craft is constrained by physics and the capabilities of current weapons, said David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and former fighter pilot. While critics have questioned why a balloon cannot be brought down with gunfire from a fighter jet, he said, a canopy with bullet holes often won’t allow for enough pressure to escape.

“You can fill a balloon full of bullet holes, and it’s going to stay at altitude,” said Deptula, who’s now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Another challenge for fighter pilots is that balloons appear to be nearly stationary, he said. For an aircraft that is traveling at hundreds of miles per hour and could stall if it does not keep enough speed, there is a small window of time for a pilot to find an unidentified object, clarify that no one is aboard and launch a missile at it, Deptula said.

The height of some balloons also create challenges, he said. The Chinese airship was taken out at more than 60,000 feet by an F-22 Raptor launching a missile at 58,000 feet. That is beyond the ceiling an F-16 and many other U.S. aircraft can fly.

The radar used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, also has had challenges. Smaller objects were previously filtered out as military officials sought to avoid getting bogged down trying to distinguish a flock of birds or a weather balloon, say, from an adversarial aircraft or missile. As much as 98 percent of radar data was left out of routine analysis, said VanHerck, who also leads NORAD, in 2021.

That has changed since these incidents, officials said. VanHerck said Sunday that military officials had made adjustments “to give us better fidelity on seeing smaller objects.”

“That’s why I think you’re seeing these overall,” he said. “Plus, there’s a heightened alert to look for this information.”

U.S. military failed to detect prior Chinese incursions, general says

Further complicating the issue, another U.S. official said, are radar blind spots. The military relies partly on FAA radars, the official said, and the agency has said it needs to upgrade its infrastructure.

The object shot down over Lake Huron was previously tracked in Canada and then Montana, and fighter pilots were sent up Saturday night to identify the radar hit. They flew for an hour and a half and could not find anything, the official said, and radars lost the trail until another hit was detected Sunday.

“We know in certain places in the country there are not great radars,” the official said. “We know that they don’t always talk to all the systems in the same way that can be helpful. Some of that is a capability question. Some of it’s just a calibration and programming question. And then some of it is how that data moves through the system to the various places where people are looking at it.”

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of balloons over the United States at any given time, launched on missions ranging from military and government observation and research to middle-school science projects, said Paul Fetkowitz, president of high-altitude balloon maker Kaymont Consolidated.

Military and government officials before this month may not have appreciated the sheer number of balloons sent up for professional and personal use, Fetkowitz said. Balloons with payloads lighter than four pounds don’t require FAA notification, he added, which could create conditions for mistaken intent or suspicion if one is spotted and commanders are hypervigilant.

“I get the feeling they shot down something that was somebody’s research project,” he said, describing a potential worry for enthusiasts and professionals. They have uses beyond weather studies, he said, citing offshore drilling rigs in Texas that use balloons to monitor conditions to catch problems and speed up repairs.

“You wonder if they’re going to see something over Texas and shoot it down,” he said. “It’s in the back of every balloon launcher’s mind now.”

Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.

More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada

The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.

The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.

The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.

Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.