The US military’s ability to detect mysterious flying objects in North American airspace has been significantly enhanced in the past few weeks, following a tweak in radar filters after the detection of a Chinese spy balloon drifting over the US.
The head of the military commands responsible for shooting down these objects, US Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, explained that NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and US Northern Command have begun searching for much smaller, slower-moving flying objects, while also making adjustments to filtration based on altitude.
Four objects, one Chinese surveillance balloon and three other smaller objects, were shot down in the span of about a week, and the head of the military commands that have been involved in shooting down these objects flying over the US and Canada revealed in a briefing Sunday that the uptick in discovery and engagement follows a tweak of the radar filters after the Chinese spy balloon drifted across the continental US earlier this month.
Since the US Air Force shot down the Chinese balloon in early February, fighter jets have downed three additional airborne objects. An F-22 Raptor, a stealth fifth-generation fighter jet, fired a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile to down the Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, sending the large system plummeting over 60,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean.
Just days later, on February 10, an F-22 used an AIM-9X to down an unidentified object over Alaska. US officials said this object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and posed a threat to civilian aircraft. On February 11, the next day, an F-22 fired an AIM-9X to take down an object over northern Canada.
The F-22, which notched its first three air-to-air kills after nearly two decades in service, was finally given a rest on Sunday, when an F-16 — still using the AIM-9X — took down an object over Lake Huron that was flying at a low altitude of 20,000 feet, well below the cruising altitude of many commercial airliners.
While the US identified the first object as a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon, North American militaries have yet to explain publically what the other objects are — aside from offering a few details about size and shape — and what purpose they serve.
Melissa Dalton, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, said on Sunday that although the US has not been able to identify what these recent objects were from over the weekend, the decision to shoot them down was still made out of an “abundance of caution to protect our security and interests.”
She added that the recent objects did not pose a “kinetic military threat,” but they were traveling in proximity to “sensitive” US military sites and that their relatively low altitude could possibly threaten civilian aircraft.
The US military’s increased ability to detect these objects can be attributed to the radar adjustments and that operators are on “heightened alert” and looking more closely for these smaller and slower objects. It is not immediately clear where the objects came from, however the Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder noted that China operates a global network of surveillance balloons that extends across five continents and multiple regions, but it is unclear if the objects that were downed in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon were also of Chinese origin.
The US military has demonstrated its increased ability to detect and respond to mysterious flying objects and it is likely that the US and its allies will continue to enhance their surveillance capabilities in order to ensure the security of North American airspace.