A trio of new intrusions leaves US leaders searching for explanations

() — A deep national security mystery is threatening a political storm after US warplanes took off for three days in a row to shoot down a trio of unidentified aerial objects high above the North American continent.

The wave of attacks against the unknown craft came a week after the tracking and downing of a Chinese balloon suspected of carrying out surveillance duties. Now, the few details that are coming out of the Pentagon and the Capitol are making an already very unusual international episode even more strange and confusing.

No one—not the White House, not the Pentagon, not the government of Canada, whose airspace has also been violated—seems to be able to say exactly what is happening with these latest downed aircraft. This raises questions for US military high command and spy agencies, as well as the potential security of civil aviation. And it creates an information vacuum that Republicans are once again using to question the leadership of President Joe Biden.

The intrigue is also set against a tense world situation, with already difficult relations with China, a rising superpower, increasingly hostile, and with the United States leading the West in an effective proxy war against Russia in the Ukraine.

“What has happened in the last two weeks or so, 10 days, has been nothing short of insane,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, hours before a aerial object shot down over Lake Huron.

“The military needs to have a plan to not only determine what’s out there, but (to) determine the dangers that are out there,” Tester said.

With the North American Aerospace Defense Command on high alert, US fighters have shot down three objects since Friday, following the downing of the Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina on February 4:

  • On Sunday afternoon, an F-16 shot down a high-altitude object over Lake Huron, located between Michigan and Ontario. The Pentagon declared that the object did not constitute a military threat, but rather an aviation hazard. However, he linked the craft to a radar signal picked up earlier over Montana, where US intercontinental missile silos and other sensitive sites are located.
  • On Saturday, a US F-22 fighter jet operating under the joint orders of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Biden fired a missile that shot down an object hovering 40,000 feet over central Yukon in the far north of Canada. Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand described a “cylindrical object” smaller than the Chinese balloon.
  • On Friday, an F-22 shot down another unidentified aircraft over Alaskan airspace. The US pilots were able to get close to the object before it was shot down and reported that it did not appear to be carrying surveillance equipment.
US shoots down object flying over Alaska 4:42

Recent incidents raise new questions

Even at the height of the Cold War in the last century, when American fighter jets often shot down Soviet aircraft that strained American and European defenses, were pilots often sent to shoot down unidentified objects over the United States and Canada. It is not normal for Americans to settle in for the Super Bowl with their president issuing orders to shoot down unknown objects from the American sky.

In fact, NORAD Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck stated that the recently shot down objects were likely the first “kinetic action” NORAD or US Northern Command had taken against an airborne object over US airspace.

Thus, the events of the past few days raise serious national security and political questions that go far beyond the often close political battle in Washington, and can only be assessed once more details are known.

These include:

  • Are the latest incidents in any way related to the Beijing spy program described by the administration following the downing of the Chinese balloon and other reported crossings of other balloons over US territory? Any hint of successive Chinese violations of US airspace would spell a serious twist in US-China relations, already strained by a belligerent Beijing in what could be the start of a 21st century Cold War.
  • If they are not related to China, are the latest foreign objects flying over North America linked to some other power or hostile group, company or private entity? Are they even connected to each other or are they simply the result of coincidences at a time of heightened awareness and tensions?
  • If the latter, is NORAD now detecting more potentially hostile objects in a state of high alert after the Chinese balloon crisis? If the objects are suspicious, is this a sudden increase in such flights, or have these objects flown over the continent with impunity in the past? Given the growing threat that civil aviation is already facing – for example, the increase in the number of low-flying drones – is this a new problem that the aviation industry should be concerned about?
  • Finally, what is the political impact of this series of incidents? Biden was criticized by Republicans for citing the possibility of injury to civilians or damage to buildings on the ground for waiting so long to shoot down the Chinese balloon earlier in the month. In his subsequent State of the Union address, he strongly warned China that he would defend US sovereignty. His aides have since characterized his response to subsequent incidents as that of a decisive commander-in-chief. This shows that the White House understands the political danger that awaits it if Americans perceive that it is not doing all it can to defend the homeland.

The political blame game is intensifying. Speaking on ‘s “State of the Union,” Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, linked the incursions into US airspace to Republican claims that Biden did not is protecting the southern border and complained that top officials were not reporting enough to Congress. And he, too, took a novel critique of Biden over claims that the president did not move quickly enough sooner.

“They seem a bit trigger-happy, though this is certainly preferable to the permissive environment they displayed when the Chinese spy balloon was flying over some of our more sensitive sites,” Turner told Jake Tapper.

“I think one thing that this demonstrates is certainly the fallacy of the Biden administration’s argument that the height of the Chinese balloon made them have no concern because indeed, as we know, anything that goes up can come down.”

No comment from Biden

Biden, who did not address the new intrusions at a black-tie event with state governors on Saturday, has yet to speak to Americans in person about the trio of incidents over the weekend.

But a senior official tried to downplay concerns about the shooting downs on Sunday night.

“Because we have not yet been able to definitively assess what these recent objects are, we have exercised an abundance of caution to protect our security and interests,” said Melissa Dalton, Under Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs.

“The spy balloon (from China) was, of course, different in the sense that we knew exactly what (it was). These latest objects do not pose a kinetic military threat, but their trajectory near sensitive (defense) installations and the altitude at which they were flying could pose a hazard to civil aviation and are therefore of concern,” added Dalton.

The lack of specificity is unlikely to calm speculation or partisan maneuvering in Washington. At the start of a new presidential election cycle and in a polarized political era where social media magnifies conspiracy theories, this bizarre series of incidents is mounting pressure on Biden following recriminations over his decision to wait until the Chinese balloon had crossed the country before shooting it down over the water.

South Korea tests space rocket and causes astonishment 0:43

New speculation and criticism could be premature as officials work to fully understand the sequence of events and more about the objects. ‘s Natasha Bertrand reported Sunday that NORAD had recently reset the filters it uses to sift through the data, which had previously focused on detecting fast-moving objects below a certain altitude. Early warning filters had previously been set to prevent detection of other objects, such as birds and weather balloons, according to a source briefed on the matter.

Juliette Kayyem, a security analyst for , said this opening of the “opening” means more objects are being identified.

“They’re getting a lot of positive results that they weren’t getting before. Most of it is going to be airplanes, whatever it is,” said Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.

“What we can’t answer right now is whether this greater opening captures a lot of things that have essentially been forgiven, out there in the skies, because they weren’t a threat, or if they’re part of something staged for any surveillance.”

Another communications problem?

In a unique and rapidly evolving situation, the government may not know much more than it is saying. But the piecemeal appearance of details is adding to the confusion. On matters such as the Chinese balloon and the discovery of classified vice-presidential documents in Biden’s home and office, the administration has at times struggled to control the media narrative to the detriment of its own policy.

On Sunday there was more confusion. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, told ABC’s “This Week” that the two objects shot down over Alaska and the Yukon were balloons, but smaller than the original Chinese intruder, after claiming which had been previously reported by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.

The US Department of Defense, however, later clarified that these two objects “did not look much like the PRC balloon” shot down last week. There are also signs that federal lawmakers may be receiving incomplete information from military and local authorities, risking further confusion or politicization about what is happening.

Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana appeared to make a direct link Sunday on ” Newsroom” between the Chinese globe and the latest objects, though so far there has been no confirmation that they are connected.

“It doesn’t give me much confidence knowing that these artifacts are smaller,” he said. “I am very concerned about the accumulated data that is being collected. … I need answers, and so do the American people.”

These speculations may be premature. But the fierce political debate over the balloon has clearly changed Biden’s tolerance threshold for unknown aerial objects.

Now it’s all about shooting first and investigating later.

‘s Haley Britzky contributed to this report.

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Written by Editor TLN

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