U.S. officials have said the uptick in detection of high-altitude objects intruding into U.S. airspace, to include three such objects shot down since Friday, may be due to recent radar enhancements that have allowed for greater scrutiny of such events.

“In light of the People’s Republic of China balloon that we took down last Saturday, we have been more closely scrutinizing our air space at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week,” Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, told reporters on Sunday evening.

John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, during a White House press briefing on Feb. 13, 2023. Photo: Screenshot of White House livestream.

 Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command, during the same briefing detailed how radar systems have been adjusted in light of the recent Chinese surveillance detection, adding there’s also “heightened alert to look for this information” in the wake of that incident. 

“Radars essentially filter out information based on speed. So you can set various gates.  We call them velocity gates that allow us to filter out low-speed clutter. So if you have radars on all the time that we’re looking at anything from zero speed up to, say, 100, you would see a lot more information,” VanHerck said. “We have adjusted some of those gates to give us better fidelity on seeing smaller objects. You can also filter out by altitude. And so, with some adjustments, we’ve been able to get a better categorization of radar tracks now. And that’s why I think you’re seeing these overall.”

John Kirby, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, reiterated the radar enhancements “could be one reason that we’re finding more,” while noting the U.S. will gain greater detail into the spate of recent airspace intrusions as it collects intelligence on the debris from the recovered objects. 

“If you set the parameters in such a way to look for a certain something, it’s more likely that you’re going to find a certain something,” Kirby said during a White House press briefing on Monday.

Less than a week after the Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina after it had traversed eastward across the U.S., the military took out another high-altitude object off the coast of Alaska on Friday after it had crossed into territorial airspace and presented a “threat to the safety of civilian flight,” according to White House and Pentagon officials (Defense Daily, Feb. 10). 

Then, on Saturday a high-altitude object was shot down in Northern Canada, which was followed by another such object being taken down over Lake Huron on Sunday afternoon.

The three unidentified objects were all shot down with Raytheon Technologies [RTX]-built AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, with F-22s used to fire the weapon for the incidents on Friday and Saturday and an F-16 jet used on Sunday.

“Maintaining a radar track on an object this small is very hard. So taking a radar shot such as AIM-120 [AMRAAM, also built by Raytheon] would be a lower probability of success. We assessed taking a gunshot [on Saturday] in that event, as well as [on Sunday]. And the pilots in each situation felt that that was really unachievable because of the size, especially [on Saturday] in the altitude, and also because of the challenge to acquire it visually because it’s so small,” VanHerck said. “It’s also potentially a safety of flight issue because you have to get so close to the object before you see it that you potentially could fly into the debris or the actual object.  Therefore, in each situation, the AIM-9X, a heat seeking missile or infrared missile that sees contrast, has been the weapons of choice against the objects we’ve been seeing.”

Kirby reiterated that part of the call to shoot down the recent objects, which were flying at 20,000 to 40,000 feet, was due to the potential threat to commercial air traffic at those altitudes, while the Chinese surveillance balloon flying at over 60,000 feet did not pose a similar hazard.

“While we have no reason to suspect they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out. That is why the president, at the recommendation of the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the NORTHCOM/NORAD commander, gave the order to shoot them down,” Kirby said.

Both Kirby and VanHerck cited the challenges radars face in detecting these small objects moving at a slow pace at such high-altitudes.

“Slow moving objects at a high altitude with a small radar cross-section are difficult to detect on radar. Even objects the size of the Chinese spy balloon, which had a payload the size of roughly three school buses, were not picked up by previous administrations or other countries,” Kirby said. 

Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, during a Brookings Institution discussion on Monday said the service has also been emphasizing “better scrutiny of our aerospace and adjusting of the radar sensitivities” since the Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down.

“Which means we’re seeing more things than we would normally see, but we don’t fully appreciate or understand exactly what we’re seeing. As we try to do recovery effort for some of the things we’ve shot down, we’ll know more,” Brown said. 

Dalton told lawmakers last week DoD is continuing to modernize NORAD’s surveillance capabilities, to include a near-term focus on working with Canada to augment the current early-warning North Warning System capability with a new set of sensors called Crossbow “that will enhance NORAD’s ability to detect approaching airborne threats” and a longer-term effort to work on over-the-horizon radars in both the U.S. and Canada to further “enhance NORAD’s ability to perform its airspace warning, control and maritime warning missions” (Defense Daily, Fen. 9). 

Kirby noted President Biden has also directed the National Security Council to lead an interagency team “to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks.”

“We are certainly improving our capabilities now. And as I said, the president has directed the national security team to dig into this deeper from an interagency effort and to see what other improvements we might need to make,” Kirby said on Monday. “Just by adapting the way the radar parameters are set, we have approved our ability to detect. And again, I said that could be one reason why we’re seeing more.”

Efforts are underway to recover debris from the sites where the three recent high-altitude objects were shot down, according to Kirby, who added it “could take a long time” to collect all the debris from the Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina. 

The Pentagon confirmed last week the Chinese high-altitude spy balloon was part of a larger surveillance program run by Beijing, with Kirby noting the U.S. has assessed the effort is connected to the People’s Liberation Army and has provided “limited additive capabilities” to their intelligence efforts.

“It was operating during the previous administration but they did not detect it. We detected it. We tracked it. And we have been carefully studying it to learn as much as we can. We know that these [Chinese] surveillance balloons have crossed over dozens of countries on multiple continents around the world, including some of our closest allies and partners,” Kirby said. “But in the future, if [China] continues to advance this technology, it certainly could become more valuable to them.”

Kirby was also asked whether the U.S. is considering the possibility of aliens or extraterrestrials when it comes to the recent incidents of unidentified objects, with VanHerck commenting on Sunday night that officials “haven’t ruled out anything.”

“I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens, with respect to these craft. Period. I don’t think there’s anymore that needs to be said there,” Kirby said.