The skies over North America have seen a remarkable series of events recently, with the U.S. military shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon and other “unidentified objects.”
The downing of the balloon has sparked a fierce diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing. Fighter jets have also shot down three other objects over Canada and Alaska.
China’s Foreign Ministry described the balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast as a civilian weather balloon that strayed off course and accused the U.S. of overreacting. Amid escalating tensions, Beijing also accused the U.S. of flying balloons in its airspace for more than a year.
Former Royal Canadian Air Force Major General (ret.) Scott Clancy, who served as NORAD’s director of operations from 2020 to 2021, told MarketWatch that the sheer scale of the Chinese balloon was unusual.
“I was not necessarily aware of any balloon the size of the one that we saw from China traversing NORAD,” he said, citing his time at the joint American-Canadian organization. “The balloon was 150 feet tall and had a payload the size of three buses.”
“It’s not a weather balloon,” added Clancy, who also served as deputy commander of NORAD’s Alaskan region from 2018 to 2020, and is now a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Related: ‘Leading explanation’ for 3 objects shot down over weekend is they were ‘benign’ balloons, White House says
Clancy said he thinks that, when the Chinese balloon was spotted, NORAD likely “tweaked the parameters” of its radars, which is how the three other objects were identified.
“That number of events like this happening in such close proximity, that doesn’t smell right,” he added. “If I was a guy at NORAD I would be saying, ‘This is a coordinated effort to gather intelligence.’”
That said, Clancy was hardly shocked by the broader turn of events. “For me, as someone who has watched Russian military aircraft approach North America, and China’s operations worldwide, none of this surprises me,” he said.
“As the director of operations for NORAD, it was my job to train the enterprise to deal with threats like this,” he said. Initially, objects show up just as a blip on the radar, according to Clancy. “At distances, and with big radars, it’s really just a radar contact,” he added. “Is it civilian? Is it military? Is it a balloon? Is it a drone?”
Aircraft could then be launched to inspect and identify the objects.
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Gregory Falco, assistant professor at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University told MarketWatch that he was not surprised when the Chinese balloon was spotted in late January. “This is very typical nation-state activity,” he said. “This happens all the time [but] it’s not always so blatant.”
In another twist, the White House said Tuesday there could be a “benign” commercial or research explanation for the three high-altitude objects downed by the U.S. over the weekend.
Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, described the alleged Chinese spy balloon as “a big awakening” for the U.S. “The first object was something very unusual – it was much bigger than a weather balloon,” he told MarketWatch.
“The timing was also crazy,” Boyd added, noting that the balloon was spotted just days before a planned high-level meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing. Amid the furor caused by the alleged spy balloon, the State Department postponed the trip.
Boyd noted that China has also engaged in provocative behavior in the South China Sea and even in space, where Beijing’s destruction of a satellite sparked concern about space debris. “People don’t know how to interpret what China is doing,” he added.
Opinion: China runs roughshod over international law to expand its territory and influence without firing a shot
But Boyd thinks the Chinese balloon and the three other objects may be very different entities. “I would be surprised if objects, two, three, or four were surveillance balloons as well,” he said.
U.S. Navy divers have pulled debris from the downed balloon from the ocean floor. Johns Hopkins’ Falco said he was intrigued to find out more about the balloon and its payload. “I would be surprised if they are using proprietary technology that we haven’t seen yet,” he said. “Knowing your adversary is a very important thing when it comes to defense – it could really help us to better understand who we’re dealing with.”