The mysterious objects in North America’s skies

Not since the 1950s and the launch of the Soviet Sputnik has there been so much paranoia about mysterious flying objects over North America. Today, as then, geopolitical shifts have combined with rapid technological advances to leave the public feeling a deep unease. Shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon in North American airspace, as the US did on February 4, was unprecedented; the military has since downed three more unidentified objects. The discovery of the four craft has exposed gaps in surveillance and intelligence that must be addressed. But the US authorities should be wary of fanning a 1950s-style “red scare”.

US officials now say with high confidence that the balloon downed by a US fighter off North Carolina had been engaged in surveillance, and not weather research as Beijing asserted. The US military says it has recovered electronic components, including sensors, from the airship.

The origin and nature of the three objects shot down over Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, and Lake Huron at the weekend is still a mystery. US officials say all were smaller than the “spy” balloon and were at lower altitudes, and appeared to have no propulsion capabilities. Only the possibility they might be extraterrestrial — which lit up social media after a US general said he had “not ruled anything out” — has now been firmly denied.

Washington says the Chinese spy balloon entered US airspace on January 28 but has not said if it was tracking the balloon earlier; the Pentagon acknowledged its presence only after photographers snapped it over Montana. The three later devices appear to have been detected because the military recalibrated its radar surveillance after the spy balloon episode. It is not known if such overflights are new phenomena, or regular ones that have finally been spotted thanks to increased vigilance.

The US military also revealed that the US had failed to detect four previous flights by Chinese spy balloons over its airspace which had been revealed by later intelligence analysis. But if US intelligence was aware of China’s spy balloon programme for a year or so, as some officials suggest, the question arises of why radar systems had not been effectively recalibrated earlier.

What certainly seems to have been revealed is what General Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command, has called a “domain awareness gap” — or deficiencies in warning and surveillance systems. The spy balloon was in “near space”, where the US has not previously focused monitoring efforts. Gen VanHerck warned last year of other domain awareness “challenges” including the need to detect hypersonic and submarine threats. He suggested investments in over-the-horizon radar would improve readiness, but better use of artificial intelligence was also needed to discern patterns in data.

Recent events suggest the US and its allies urgently need to review air and sea surveillance capabilities. Russia’s war on Ukraine, and unexplained blasts that crippled a Baltic gas pipeline, have already laid bare the vulnerability of critical subsea infrastructure.

The White House suggested on Tuesday the three flying objects might yet prove to have a “commercial or otherwise benign purpose”. If they do turn out to be linked to the Chinese state, Washington will see them as serious provocations. Yet the spy balloon affair has exposed the need for safeguards in the relationship. That will require the resumption of genuine military-to-military communications. A possible meeting between secretary of state Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the coming Munich Security Conference could help to calm tensions. The US-Soviet rivalry of which Sputnik was an early symbol was ultimately managed without leading to war. That must be the goal, too, for Washington and Beijing.

#mysterious #objects #North #Americas #skies

Leave a Comment