Two weeks after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon and one week after President Biden directed the military to shoot down three more unidentified objects, America is still gripped by questions over what the objects were and why they were flying at a height that posed a risk to air traffic.
President Biden on Thursday delivered his most extensive remarks to date on the situation, in which he all but ruled out that the three unidentified objects were part of the Chinese balloon program or that they were a foreign intelligence-gathering effort.
But with officials still unable to collect the debris from the latest downed objects, there is still much more to be learned about to whom, what their purpose was and how they ended up in a position to be shot down.
Who owns the objects?
Biden backed the intelligence assessment from his National Security Council that the unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were “most likely” related to a private company or research institution, but did not go further to explain the conclusion.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was able to detect the UFOs after tuning its radars to scan for the objects, which were flying at an elevation of 40,000 feet or below and posed a threat to civilian aviation.
Guy Gratton, an associate professor of aviation and the environment at the United Kingdom’s Cranfield University, said hundreds of weather balloons go up across the world every day.
But it would be “irresponsible” to send them up to around 40,000 feet, where they can interfere with air traffic, Gratton explained.
“There are some really interesting questions about why they would be there,” he said. “Because you really do not want those floating around where passenger aircraft are flying.”
Some lawmakers have raised questions about the UFOs being benign or commercial, asking why no company or institution has come forward to claim them. One hobbyist group has said a balloon went missing around the time of the shoot-downs.
The tweaking of radars has raised questions on what the administration’s response will be to unknown objects zipping around the sky, considering they may start detecting more of them.
The White House announced an interagency task force this week to outline how the administration will respond to future UFOs.
How was information shared publicly?
The latter three UFO takedowns were followed by a vacuum of information, which bred conspiracy theories and uncertainty in the public. While White House and Pentagon officials spoke to reporters daily in the aftermath of the three objects being shot down, there was a limited amount of information available at the time.
A Pentagon official on Sunday said they could not rule out extraterrestrial life related to the three objects, a notion the White House refuted a day later. And for a time, so little was known about the UFOs that officials could only describe them as “objects” without getting more specific.
Natalie Baker, an associate professor studying national security strategy and how society responds to existential threats at the National War College, said it was important for the administration to consider a more careful approach in the future, given they may not be able to reveal a plethora of information quickly.
“It’s important for us to better understand how to relay information to the public,” Baker said. “That fosters trust, because there’s a lack of trust in the government by the public and I think situations like that reveal this issue.”
The president on Thursday made clear that while it is still unknown what the three objects shot down last week were, “nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country.”
Biden added that he made “no apologies” for shooting down the Chinese balloon. Administration officials have said they were able to predict the balloon’s path and protect sensitive military sites, and argued that by waiting to take it down until it was over water, they were able to prevent property damage and injuries.
The administration’s ability to definitively rule out a connection to China’s spy balloon program came days after Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told USA Today that the three unidentified objects were “almost certainly a case of the Chinese trying to come up with new or creative ways to spy on us.”
What exactly were the later 3 objects?
The object shot down over Lake Huron in Michigan on Sunday appeared to be an octagonal object, and the one shot down over the waters of Alaska was the size of a small car.
Gratton, the aviation professor from Cranfield University, said some balloons could reach the size of a small car as they float upward.
And while balloons are generally round and not octagonal, it’s also possible the pilot who identified the octagonal shape above Lake Huron saw it through a camera lens that distorted his perception of it, according to Gratton.
Details are even murkier on the object taken out over Canada’s Yukon. Canadian Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre said in a Wednesday Twitter thread the UFO was a suspected balloon.
Eyre described the retrieval efforts as “challenging in the remote, mountainous area with deep snow, risk of avalanche, and harsh weather conditions.”
An Illinois-based hobbyist group, the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, wrote in a now widely circulated blog post that one of its balloons had gone missing around the time the objects were shot down. A member of the group told Politico on Friday that they believe the object shot down over the Yukon could be their balloon.
John Kirby, a national security spokesperson at the White House, said Friday that he was unable to confirm reports that the hobbyist group might be connected to the object, and he said no organization has come forward to claim ownership of any of the objects.
A lot of mysterious flying objects do turn out to be weather balloons, said Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation subcommittee who chaired the first congressional hearing on UFOs in 50 years last spring.
But Carson added that the UFOs shot down last weekend may not be “completely benign.”
“There’s a lot of work that we are going to do,” Carson told WTHR 13 News on Tuesday. “The issue of [unidentified aerial phenomena] will continue to come up. We can’t make rash judgements until we have all of the information.”
Kirby on Friday acknowledged that some questions about the objects may remain a mystery indefinitely. He noted that one balloon was shot down over frozen sea ice, another was over the wilderness of the Yukon, and the third landed in Lake Huron.
“It’s going to be very difficult to find them, let alone once you find that debris be able to do the forensics to identify it,” Kirby said. “So I can’t promise you that we’ll know definitively one way or another.”
Source: The Hill