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Detecting unauthorized flying objects

Four objects have been seen, and subsequently shot down, in North American air space since the first sighting was reported on February 1st. In the case of three of the four “objects” shot out of the sky by U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor pilots, two of them in Canadian airspace, that’s about all that can be definitively said of them at this point.

That was made abundantly clear when three federal officials held an unattributable “technical briefing” in Ottawa on February 13th. They took pains to mostly avoid using the first two words of Unidentified Flying Object or UFO, the acronym beloved by extra-terrestrial invasion conspiracy theorists and generations of science fiction writers and film producers.

U.S. national security officials have repeatedly discounted the alien angle, but when U.S. Air Force General Glen D. VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defence Command in Colorado Springs, was asked by a reporter Feb. 12, he replied straight-faced that he had not “ruled out anything at this point.”

The following day, officials from Canada's& federal departments of National Defence (DND) and Public Safety, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police leaned simply on “objects” to explain – or at least try to – what’s been happening since a Chinese “spy” balloon was shot down Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina by the pilot of a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor deployed out of 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB Base in Virginia.

Uproar over that comment also forced White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to be very direct when addressing reporters on Feb 13th. "There is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns," she stated categorically.

Not aliens, but unidentified and unauthorized objects have definitely been flying across Canadian and American skies.

The only "object" not “unidentified” so far, was a large balloon that had transited North America in a convoluted path that apparently began over the Aleutian Islands off mainland Alaska. Most of its observed transit was at 60,000-65,000 feet, well above the maximum service ceiling of 41,000-45,000 ft for commercial aircraft and even 45,000-51,000 ft for some private jets with their higher power-to-weight ratios.

Asked about the potential risk to commercial aviation at lower altitudes, the National Defence official told FrontLine that Transport Canada, which was not represented at the briefing, had not officially warned civil aviation about the three smaller objects identified later in the week. He agreed that there “could have been […] a safety concern for general aviation” but that “since we had custody (with NORAD assets) of those three objects as they transited the airspace, we didn’t have to publish a NOTAM [Notice to Air Missions] but rather had controllers vector civil aviation around them.” 

In the case of the first object, quickly dubbed the "Chinese spy balloon", no notices were issued by Canada or the U.S. until the Federal Aviation Administration allowed it to clear the Atlantic Coast to avoid debris from the “the school bus-sized” package hitting populated areas along its path. Downed by an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, it landed in shallow waters six miles offshore, making debris recovery relatively simple once it was pinpointed.

The payload that had been suspended below the large balloon envelope, and described as the size of “two school buses”, continues to be analyzed. U.S. officials quickly dismissed Chinese foreign ministry claims that it was simply “a civilian airship” used mainly for weather research and that it had unintentionally entered U.S. airspace.

While the diplomatic dance continued, another F-22, this time out of 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, used a  Sidewinder missile to bring down an “unidentified object” Feb. 10 over the Beaufort Sea near the international boundary with Canada. It was described by the U.S. Administration as the size of a small car but apparently, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, wasn’t a balloon

Then on Feb. 11, an F-16 Fighting Falcon tasked out of Elmendorf-Richardson by Colorado Springs, used a Sidewinder to down an object over central Yukon with Canada’s approval within NORAD. Described by a Canadian official as cylindrical and smaller than the initial “spy” platform, this one was picked up on radar Feb. 10 as it passed over Alaska.

A pair of RCAF CF-188 Hornets also had been scrambled from Canadian Armed Forces Base Cold Lake, Alberta, and were “in the vicinity” when NORAD vectored in the F-22. The National Defence official said that while they could have completed the interception “within minutes” he declined to say how the Hornets were armed or otherwise equipped.

(The RCAF ordered 50 of the Raytheon AIM-9X short-range missiles, which cost up to US$400,000 apiece, as well as upgraded radars in a US$832-million package, nearly three years ago to maintain two squadrons’ capabilities through 2032 until their recently-ordered F-35 Lightning II replacements enter service. Delivery is still pending despite State Department approval of the 2020 export sale.)

A fourth sighting occurred on Feb. 12. Initially detected over Montana, this fourth "object" reappeared at 20,000 feet over the Michigan side of Lake Huron and was shot down by an F-22 pilot over adjacent Canadian waters. The U.S. said this one was octagonal with no discernible payload.

Curiously enough, it was first detected over southern Alberta, which has officials scratching their heads. A Canadian official said that the mystery, including the object’s origins, likely could be solved “if we can find it.”

The U.S. disclosed February 14 that the first Sidewinder fired by the F-16 over Lake Huron missed and, although the cause was unknown, it’s likely that its infrared-tracking seeker was unable to lock on for its proximity warhead to explode. The pilot’s second missile succeeded after the first landed “harmlessly" in the lake, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army General Mark Milley,

So the three smaller “objects” remain “unidentified” until debris is analyzed, which the RCMP official at the briefing said might not be practicable. What was certain, courtesy of the DND spokesperson, was that all three were “unauthorized, unwanted and of concern”.

The one downed in the Beaufort Sea, possibly through sea ice, could be challenging, given that the bottom drops quickly to thousands of feet not far offshore.

The one in Yukon presents a different challenge because of the rugged and heavily-treed terrain where it went down between Dawson City and Mayo in the territory’s sparsely-populated north-central region. Not knowing what to expect, the RCMP, which is leading the search with the help of the Royal Canadian Air Force assets and Canadian Army personnel, has equipped its teams “out of an abundance of caution” with explosive, chemical, biological and radiological detection gear. The RCMP official stressed that there is no guarantee the debris will be found.

As for recovering debris from the most recent object, Lake Huron – which is mostly frozen over at this time of year – has an average depth of 59 metres (195 feet) and a maximum depth of 299m (750ft) and the debris landed in a deep area. As of Feb. 13, the Canadian Coast Guard has one ship, two helicopters and, weather permitting, a drone, to assist with its search.

General VanHerck, NORAD’s commander, admitted that the objects have exposed a “gap” in American air defences. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,” he confirmed.

If there is one clear thing that has come out of this aerial invasion, it’s that Canada and the U.S. have stepped up their vigilance, including adjusting NORAD radar sensitivity so that “there’s now more awareness of these objects.” The DND official agreed that “there seems to be a pattern."

In fact, it seems likely that new technology, such as sensors that can detect low profile and low heat signatures, will be required to spot and neutralize future "Unauthorized" Flying Objects (UFOs).

Ken Pole