When U.S. government officials in early February identified and eventually shot down a surveillance balloon attributed to China, the prominent acknowledgment of a spy balloon captured public attention and inflamed tensions between Washington and Beijing. But since then, the prospect of the US government intercepting unidentified flying objects has become quotidian, with three UFOs shot down in the past four days—two near Alaska and one over Lake Huron near Michigan. The spree raises the question, are there more UFOs over US airspace than usual, or is everyone just looking more closely?
Researchers say it’s the latter, and they note that even before the balloon mania began, the US government tracked many UFOs in its airspace, including a number of balloons. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a January report, for example, tracking incidents involving UFOs, which the US government calls Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena or UAPs. Between March 5, 2021, and August 30, 2022, the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office had 247 reports of UAPs. In a wider pool of 366 UAP reports that also includes newly discovered incidents that occurred before 2021, ODNI said that 163 were balloons “or balloon-like entities,” 26 were “Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” or drones, and six were “attributed to clutter.” So, not all UFOs are balloons, and not all unidentified balloons are spy balloons.
Additionally, CNN reported on Friday that in the past year, the US intelligence community invented a novel technique for conducting real-time tracking of spy balloons or other balloon vehicles of interest. After an incident in which a Chinese spy balloon briefly entered US airspace in 2021, US intelligence forces used data they’d collected about the balloon to look back at radar and other aerial surveillance data to search for previously unidentified past incidents. The results then allowed officials to create models for tracking balloon flights around the world in close to real time.
The heightened alert in recent days may have also led to other tweaks to US radar noise reduction methods to detect more small aircraft at altitudes where planes don’t usually fly.
“This isn’t new; we just hadn’t been detecting them in the past,” says Brynn Tannehill, a RAND Corporation senior technical analyst and a former naval aviator. “I suspect that filters on US systems had previously been ignoring things that were too slow, high, or small to be considered threats. Now that the parameters on the filters have been adjusted, we’re seeing more of what was already there for the past few years.”
US government officials said at the beginning of the month that the Chinese spy balloon was roughly the size of three buses. Meanwhile, US Defense Department officials said the UFO the US shot down on Friday was likely not a balloon and was roughly the size of a small car. The object shot down on Saturday, on orders from Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was described by Canadian officials as cylindrical and seemingly smaller than a surveillance balloon. US officials said the UFO shot down on Sunday was octagonal and didn’t seem to be carrying anything.
The White House says that China has been working on a balloon surveillance initiative in recent years “that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the US and over 40 countries across five continents,” according to a statement by National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. On Sunday, the Chinese government claimed that the US illegally flew over 10 balloons in its airspace in the past year. The Biden administration denied the allegation. “Any claim that the US government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false,” Watson said in the statement.
“With the balloon at the beginning of February, the US caught China with its hands in the proverbial cookie jar and made the decision to make it public,” says Jake Williams, a former National Security Administration hacker and an analyst at the Institute for Applied Network Security. “There is likely a ton of statecraft happening in the background, either as a result of the decision to publicly acknowledge the first balloon or that led to the decision itself. Generally, yes, things change once a surveillance target knows they’re being surveilled.”
The Biden administration has been been criticized by some Republican lawmakers and others for being slow to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon and hesitant to reveal specific details about the three other UFOs taken out in recent days. (US officials said shooting down the balloon over land would pose an unacceptable risk due to falling debris.) RAND’s Tannehill says, though, that from an investigative perspective, it’s difficult to process so many cases simultaneously.
“The White House is caught between rapid response and getting the facts right,” Tannehill says. “Until the path analysis is done, we’re guessing at who launched them. Getting the facts wrong publicly would be highly damaging to US credibility.” She adds that the UFO disabled on Saturday that also flew over Canadian airspace “brings another NATO country into the discussion, and it becomes a NATO problem, not just US or NORAD,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Of the object shot down on Sunday over Lake Huron, the US Defense Department said in a statement, “We did not assess it to be a kinetic military threat to anything on the ground, but assess it was a safety flight hazard and a threat due to its potential surveillance capabilities. Our team will now work to recover the object in an effort to learn more.”
Oh, and if you’re still holding out for this flurry of aerial activity to be related to aliens, the White House is here to burst your bubble: “I know there have been questions and concerns about this,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press conference yesterday, “but there is no, again no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.” General Glen VanHerck, commander of the Air Force’s Northern Command, added during a news conference on Sunday, though, “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.”