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Friday, March 24, 2023

NORAD Modernization and Security Reviews Expected as National Airspace Threatened

"We remain concerned by the PRC's increasingly assertive efforts to subvert the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure," said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.

The U.S. Air Force has shot down more “high-altitude objects” in recent days, prompting fresh concerns over the safety and security of North American national airspace. On Monday, it was announced during a White House press briefing that an interagency group will form to study the broader policy implications for the detection, analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose safety or security risks.

Following the downing of the Chinese balloon on Feb. 4, a U.S. Air Force F-22 shot down an unidentified high-altitude object off the Northern coast of Alaska that posed a threat to civilian airliners, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said. The North American Aerospace Defense Command detected the object on Feb. 9 using ground radar and sent aircraft to identify the object. The pilots ascertained the object was unmanned.  

“The object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” Ryder said. President Joe Biden ordered U.S. Northern Command to shoot down the object. Civilian airliners typically fly between 40,000 and 45,000 feet.

The object fell onto sea ice off the coast of Alaska and Northern Command has begun recovery operations, Ryder said. “U.S. Northern Command’s Alaska Command coordinated the operation with assistance from the Alaska Air National Guard, Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” he said. 

The object was about the size of a small car, the general said, and does not resemble in any way the Chinese surveillance balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this week. “We have no further details about the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose or origin,” he said. “We will know more once we’re able to potentially recover some of those materials.”

Two F-22s flying out of Joint Base Elmendorf in Alaska, took down the object. The one missile shot was an AIM-9X Sidewinder. “We have HC-130, HH-60 and CH-47 aircraft participating in that recovery,” the press secretary said.

The incident happened on the same day that Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand discussed modernization of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Known by many around the world as the “Santa Tracker”, NORAD is a United States-Canada organization with the more serious missions of aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning for North America.

Aerospace warning includes the detection, validation and warning of an attack against North America — whether by aircraft, missiles or space vehicles — through mutual support arrangements with other commands. 

Austin and Anand underlined the importance of investment in modern, ready, and capable forces, steps to advance NORAD modernization in order to secure the safety of national airspace in both the U.S. and Canada.

Together, the two countries, working through NORAD, tracked the recent Chinese surveillance balloon that violated the sovereignty of both countries from late January.  

“That coordination underscored the importance of our alliance and the need for continued investment in NORAD modernization on both sides,” Austin said. “We remain concerned by the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] increasingly assertive efforts to subvert the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure.” 

Speaking about the action against the high-altitude object over Alaska, Anand said the object did not fly over Canadian airspace. “United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and I participated in a call with NORAD Commander, General Glen VanHerck regarding a high-altitude object detected over Alaska,” Ananad said. “During this conversation, I conveyed Canada’s support for taking action to take down this object. NORAD deployed aircraft to track and monitor the object and provided important information to decision-makers – and the object was taken down earlier today by United States Northern Command. The Canadian Armed Forces, the Department of National Defence and I will continue to work closely with our American allies to ensure the protection of North American airspace.”

Concerns rose over the weekend as two more objects were spotted over North American airspace, and subsequently shot down. The Defense Department and White House said NORAD and Canada took down another high-altitude balloon on Feb. 11. A U.S. F-22 shot down the object in Canadian territory using an AIM 9X missile following close coordination between U.S. and Canadian authorities.

“We have no further details about the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose, or origin,” Anand said. “It appears to be a small, cylindrical object, smaller than the one downed off the coast of North Carolina.”

As Canadian authorities conduct recovery operations to help learn more about the object, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be working closely with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

And on Feb. 12, an object that could have posed a threat to aviation was shot down over Lake Huron after being picked up on radar over Montana. An F-16 fired an AIM9x to successfully shoot down an airborne object flying at approximately 20,000 feet altitude.

“The location chosen for this shoot down afforded us the opportunity to avoid impact to people on the ground while improving chances for debris recovery. There are no indications of any civilians hurt or otherwise affected,” the Defense Department said of this latest airspace incursion. “NORAD detected the object Sunday morning and has maintained visual and radar tracking of it. Based on its flight path and data we can reasonably connect this object to the radar signal picked up over Montana, which flew in proximity to sensitive DoD sites. The Pentagon said that while it had not assessed the object to be a kinetic military threat to anything on the ground, it determined it to be a safety flight hazard and a threat due to its potential surveillance capabilities.

The airspace intrusions have not gone unnoticed by America’s allies. On Monday, U.K. Defence Minister Ben Wallace announced a security review following the multiple airspace incursion incidents. “The U.K. and her allies will review what these airspace intrusions mean for our security,” Wallace said. “This development is another sign of how the global threat picture is changing for the worse.

While investigations get underway into the origin and potential mission of these airborne objects, nothing is yet being ruled out. On Sunday, Reuters reported that the U.S. Air Force general overseeing North American airspace said he would not rule out extraterrestrial activity, deferring to U.S. intelligence experts. “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” General Glen VanHerck said. “I haven’t ruled out anything.”

It is worth noting that following the initial incursion of the Chinese balloon, NORAD, defense departments the U.S. and Canada, and perhaps even the FAA, will probably have further stepped up their monitoring and detection capabilities. This may help to account for the increase in incidents, but there is likely to be more to it than that.

Last month, we wrote that Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) reporting is increasing, partially due to a better understanding of the possible threats that UAP may represent, either as safety of flight hazards or as potential adversary collection platforms, and partially due to reduced stigma surrounding UAP reporting. This increased reporting allows more opportunities to apply rigorous analysis and resolve events.

This story was updated on Feb. 13 in light of recent incidents and announcements.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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