What’s going on with the unidentified objects that US fighter planes keep taking down?

General Glen VanHerck walking down a staircase wearing a navy blue military uniform with insignia and medals.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of NORAD, arrives for a closed-door briefing for senators on about the Chinese spy balloon, on February 9, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A third object in as many days was taken out Sunday afternoon in Michigan after passing over Montana.

An as-yet unidentified object was shot down over Michigan’s Lake Huron Sunday afternoon, the third over three consecutive days. A US jet shot down a flying object over Canada Saturday, and on Friday a US fighter brought down another over Alaska.

According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the objects taken down Friday and Saturday are likely Chinese balloons, “much smaller” than the one shot down in US coastal waters off South Carolina last week. CNN reports a Pentagon memo states the unidentified object shot down over Canada Saturday was a “small, metallic balloon with a tethered payload.” North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) temporarily closed the airspace over Montana on Saturday and Lake Michigan on Sunday “during NORAD operations.”

Debris from three of the objects is still being recovered. Officials within the Biden administration have been cautious about connecting the most recent objects with the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, which officials said had been gathering limited intelligence about US military installations.

“We’re going to probably be able to piece together this whole surveillance balloon and know exactly what’s going on,” Schumer said of the balloon shot down last weekend.

US officials only discovered China’s air balloon surveillance program within the past year, though the program dates at least as far back as the administration of former President Donald Trump. “We did not detect those threats, and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of US Northern Command and NORAD, a joint operation with Canada, told reporters Monday. The US intelligence community reportedly told NORAD that the balloons were a threat, but VanHerck didn’t specify at the time what US intelligence knows about the balloon program or how it discovered the information.

President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered Canadian and US fighters — whichever had the better shot — to take down the object Saturday. US F-22 aircraft using Sidewinder missiles shot down the object, and Canadian aircraft joined US jets Friday to track it as it transited from US airspace to Canadian. US Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said in a press conference Tuesday that the first missile shot at the as-yet-unidentified object Sunday over Lake Huron missed and landed in the lake’s waters.

“Canadian Forces will now recover and analyze the wreckage of the object,” Trudeau wrote in a Twitter post.

“It is wild that we didn’t know” about the Chinese balloon surveillance program until recently, Schumer said Sunday, despite the fact that such devices crossed into US airspace at least three times under former President Donald Trump, and similar devices have been spotted over 40 countries on five different continents, according to Axios.

A US program studying UFOs may have helped detect the Chinese balloon program

It’s unclear how extensive the Chinese program is; US systems often encounter “unexplained anomalous phenomena” (UAP) as the government calls such objects, and the objects that have been identified are mostly foreign intelligence gathering or human-made trash.

The US government does have a program to study UAP under the Department of Defense, called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The Pentagon and the intelligence community coordinate through this group to “detect, identify and attribute objects of interest in Special Use Airspace and to assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.”

US programming to study UAP isn’t new; former Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) urged Congress to fund the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, the predecessor of the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, starting in 2007. Though the Pentagon claimed to have shut down the effort in 2012 and reportedly eliminated funding for it at the time, the New York Times reported in 2017 that the program continued.

ABC’s Luis Martinez reported on Tuesday that information from Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, as disclosed in reports to Congress, was one of the programs used to help identify China’s balloon surveillance program. Many of the most recent incidents of UAPs that the group has tracked have been found to have been balloons or balloon-like objects.

These incidents could cause a bigger rift between the US and China

“All countries spy on each other, and the US and China are no exception,” Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote last week, “and they have a myriad of techniques and tactics to do so, many of which are less intrusive and more precise than a massive balloon.” Given that, the balloon — and potentially the three objects downed over the weekend — might serve another purpose, or tell us more about what China and its President Xi Jinping are trying to accomplish.

There are legitimate security concerns about China’s surveillance tactics, and what it is doing with the information gathered — but honestly, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t need a balloon for that, just maybe your cellphone. And it’s still not clear why China would let this balloon head to the US on the eve of this meeting with Blinken. Some possible theories include a bureaucratic slip-up or miscommunication, which may reveal disorganization within the Chinese government, and raises questions about Xi’s competence. Signs of such dysfunction are equally troubling, as it increases the possibility of a much more serious miscalculation that could spark an even more serious confrontation.

In addition to concerns about national security, the objects the US has recently downed raise questions about the fragile relationship between the US and China. Last week, after news of the first object now determined to be a Chinese surveillance balloon broke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken decided to postpone his trip to China, indicating further rupture in the relationship between the two nations.

“While a ‘balloon’ sounds insignificant — even laughable — the fact is these are tremendously sophisticated surveillance and collection systems that are designed to linger over highly sensitive military facilities,” Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), told Vox via email last week. “The idea of the secretary of state visiting Beijing while this slow-moving platform was still drifting across the United States was undoubtedly a factor in the decision to postpone the trip, as was the recognition that the incident would dominate the agenda and crowd out the strategic issues.”

China responded to the downing of what they claimed was a civilian weather monitoring balloon, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying in a statement, “For the United States to insist on using armed force is clearly an excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention.” Thus far, China has not responded to the downing of the objects on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Update, February 14, 11:40 am ET: This piece was originally published on February 12, 2023; it has been updated to reflect new reporting about the nature of one object, and information about how another was taken down.

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