Several objects shot down over the United States and Canada within the last week remain unidentified, according to U.S. officials who have provided new details on the aerial incursions that contrast with reports from over the weekend that characterized most of the objects as balloons.
Speaking from the White House on Monday, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby confirmed that the U.S. had determined “that China has a high-altitude balloon program for intelligence collection that’s connected to the People’s Liberation Army.”
Kirby said the Chinese program was revealed as part of “a broad assessment of Chinese intelligence capabilities” under the Biden administration.
“In light of the Chinese balloon program and this recent incursion into our airspace, the United States and Canada through NORAD have been more closely scrutinizing that airspace, including enhancing our radar capabilities,” Kirby added.
While acknowledging the Pentagon’s growing awareness of China’s use of balloons for surveillance, Kirby also clarified that statements made by officials over the weekend that characterized several of the objects shot down over the U.S. and Canada as balloons may have been premature, adding that U.S. officials had not yet concluded what the objects were, or what their origins may be.
“These unidentified aerial phenomena have been reported for many years, without explanation or deep examination by the government,” Kirby said.
“We are finally trying to understand them better.”
When asked by one reporter how the objects should be characterized, Kirby was quick to say we were “still with object[s],” rather than calling them balloons, in contrast with assertions made by officials over the weekend that the takedowns by military aircraft in recent days were likely to have involved small balloons carrying payloads.
Beginning in June, President Biden began receiving daily briefings on unidentified aerial phenomena, Kirby said during Monday’s briefing. Since that time, a redoubling of efforts toward a whole of government approach toward accessing and investigating unidentified aerial phenomena has been undertaken.
Kirby told reporters the three objects brought down since Friday were not assessed to have posed a threat to anyone on the ground, although they were believed to represent a threat to civilian air traffic. There was no indication the objects had been sending out communications signals, and it was determined the objects were unmanned prior to being shot down.
Kirby also said that sidewinder missiles had been deemed the “safest and most effective” way to take unidentified objects down. So far, no wreckage from any of the objects has been recovered.
During Monday’s briefing, Kirby also denied recent accusations that the U.S. has conducted similar surveillance activities over China with its own balloons.
The statements came just hours after a briefing on Sunday night, during which Melissa Dalton, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, explained that recent enhancements to U.S. radar capabilities “may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week.”
Dalton also emphasized that the U.S. has “not yet been able to definitively assess what these recent objects are,” and that “we have acted out of an abundance of caution to protect our security and interests.”
Dalton made distinctions between the unidentified objects shot down over the U.S. and Canada in recent days and a Chinese balloon that was brought down over the South Carolina Coast on February 4.
“The spy balloon from the PRC was, of course, different in that we knew precisely what it was,” Dalton said. “These most recent objects do not pose a kinetic military threat, but their path in proximity to sensitive DOD sites and the altitude that they were flying could be a hazard to civilian aviation and — and thus raised concerns.”
Gen. Glen VanHerck, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command, added during Sunday’s briefing that many of the objects shot down in recent days were “very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section.”
“I’m not going to go into detail about shapes or anything like that really because it’s really, really difficult for pilots at the altitudes we’re operating,” VanHerck said.
“These are very, very slow objects” he added, “going at the speed of the wind, essentially.”
VanHerck explained that velocity gate settings on radar systems that had previously been used to filter information based on speeds at which objects travel have been adjusted to allow more information through.
“We have adjusted some of those gates to give us better fidelity on seeing smaller objects, VanHerck said on Sunday. “And so, with some adjustments, we’ve been able to get a better categorization of radar tracks now.”
“That’s why I think you’re seeing these overall,” VanHerck said. “Plus, there’s a heightened alert to look for this information.”
“They’ve reduced the alarm rate on the radar,” said David Stupples, a Professor of Electronic and Radio Engineering with the University of London’s School of Science and Technology of City, who told The Debrief that the recent adjustments of American defense radars have helped them detect “very slow-moving objects, which they weren’t [able to detect] before.”
Even with the recent adjustments to U.S. radar defense systems, Stupples told The Debrief that tracking smaller objects like balloons and unmanned aerial systems still presents a number of unique challenges.
“Unless the balloon has got some form of metallic or reflective material inside the balloon itself or inside the material, it’s not going to provide a very good radar surface,” Stupples told The Debrief, meaning that some objects could remain difficult to detect even despite the adjustments NORAD has made in recent days.
Stupples added that while many still lean toward the possibility that the objects shot down by the U.S. since last Friday were balloons being operated by China, more evidence will be needed to make that determination.
“I personally believe that hasn’t been proved at the moment,” Stupples told The Debrief.
The Debrief reached out to the U.S. Department of Defense and several other agencies for comment, but had received no responses as of the time of publication.
During Sunday evening’s briefing, Gen. VanHerck was asked by New York Times Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper whether he had “ruled out aliens or extraterrestrials” as a possible source behind some of the unidentified objects.
“I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” VanHerck said, although adding, “I haven’t ruled out anything.”
“At this point, we continue to assess every threat or potential threats unknown that approaches North America,” VanHerck said, “with an attempt to identify it.”
When asked similar questions on Monday, John Kirby told reporters at the White House that concerns about extraterrestrial technologies being associated with the recent shoot-downs of unidentified objects were unwarranted.
“I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens with respect to these craft,” Kirby said.
“I don’t think there’s any more that needs to be said there,” he added.