It’s Not Aliens
Notes on the Great North American Balloon Shoot of February 2023
Over the first two weeks of February, the U.S. Air Force has shot down four objects drifting through American and Canadian airspace. The first was the Chinese spy balloon first spotted over Montana and then shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 3; the next three brought down over Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, and Lake Huron remain unidentified as U.S. and Canadian authorities search for their debris. All in all, it’s the most active period of air-to-air action seen by the U.S. military since the war in Bosnia almost three decades ago.
It's also led to rampant speculation about the nature of the three objects brought down in rapid succession a week after the shoot-down of the Chinese spy balloon. Perhaps the most absurd notion offered, almost always though not entirely tongue-in-cheek, has been that these objects were extraterrestrial in origin. (I’ve indulged in a bit of that generally harmless tomfoolery myself.) The claim, in other words, is that the U.S. military has started blowing up alien spacecraft.
That’s not surprising given the raft of breathless coverage about so-called unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, in recent years. Video images taken by sensors aboard U.S. military aircraft purportedly revealed the existence of aerial vehicles with capabilities not found on planet Earth. Most of these incidents could be attributed to foreign spy drones (not unlike the Chinese spy balloon) or derelict lighter-than-air craft (perhaps like the three other objects shot down recently). Others were almost certainly the result of sensor artifacts and viewer misinterpretations, such as the series of declassified videos that attracted so much attention several years ago.
It's a particularly modern form of mental gymnastics – an advanced form of pareidolia – that’s extended to astronomers and astrophysicists as well. One Harvard scientist proposed that the enormous, cigar-shaped interstellar object discovered in 2017 and dubbed ‘Oumuamua was actually the product of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization: either an active alien probe or a discarded piece of space junk floating around the cosmos.
The Chinese spy balloon suggests that both the much-ballyhooed UAPs and the three additional objects shot down this past weekend have more mundane origins and explanations. They’re almost certainly balloons or some other similar human-made aerial objects, uncovered due to adjustments to the radars and other sensors jointly operated by the United States and Canada under the aegis of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (aka NORAD).
Unlike earlier UAPs, though, the Chinese spy balloon was just too obvious for the U.S. government to ignore or downplay. The fact that anyone with a pair of functioning Mark I eyeballs could see the massive white balloon as it floated over Montana made it impossible to just shunt this incident into the UAP file or look the other way for the sake of diplomacy. It should come as no surprise that after NORAD fine-tuned its sensors it now picks up more unwelcome aerial objects in American and Canadian airspace than it would have otherwise.
This isn’t the first time wayward surveillance balloons have caused a frenzy of extraterrestrial conjecture. After all, that’s how the conspiracy theory of an alien landing at Roswell, New Mexico began: a U.S. military surveillance balloon meant to spy on the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program crashed nearby. UFO sightings and urban legends about Area 51 also provided cover for top secret spy planes like the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, and F-117 Nighthawk as well as test and evaluation programs that put captured Soviet MiG fighters through their paces. Likewise, today’s UAP fad allowed the U.S. government across multiple presidents and administrations to disregard foreign aerial espionage programs that might otherwise have led to calls for more robust air defenses.
Indeed, what the past few weeks have revealed that America’s air defenses are remarkably thin and that a large amount of potentially hazardous aerial clutter apparently graces our skies. That’s no laughing matter, but it’s not one helped by the hyperventilation and hysteria that’s emerged in certain quarters as voices on the right try to make political hay out of these recent incidents.
Right now, it’s important for the country to keep calm and work the problem – not succumb to paranoia and political one-upmanship. America clearly needs to tighten up its air defenses and properly calibrate its radars and other detection systems. To give a sense of complexities involved, consider the fact that it took America’s most advanced fighter, the F-22 Raptor, to take down the Chinese spy balloon at a height of roughly 60,000 feet – an altitude that only the F-22 can fight at. But with production halted at just 183 aircraft, the Air Force only has so many F-22s to go around.
The three other as-yet unidentified objects shot down last weekend were at much lower altitudes and didn’t require the sort of performance only found in the F-22. (Indeed, a pair of F-16s intercepted and destroyed the octagonal object floating over Lake Huron.) But America can’t expect the sort of benign aerospace environment it enjoyed after the end of the Cold War, even if it’s just a question of high-altitude spy balloons and not the cruise missiles or suicide drones currently tormenting Ukraine. Post-9/11 reforms brought some improvements to America’s air defenses, but these were clearly not enough to deal with new forms of aerial espionage.
Fortunately, however, the country as a whole seems to have reacted to the Chinese spy balloon and the three unidentified objects mainly with bemusement. There’s been some mild concern, especially over the Chinese surveillance craft, but overall the public appears to have treated these incidents in much the same way it did the saga of the cargo container ship Ever Given when it lodged itself in the Suez Canal for a brief spell almost two years ago. It’s no Sputnik moment, and right now it doesn’t seem likely that political entrepreneurs in Congress or DC think tanks will be able to transform it into one – this particular episode has proven a bit too silly for that.
Still, the great balloon shoot of February 2023 does offer us an opportunity to tighten up America’s air defenses to better deal with new forms of aerial espionage and new potential threats. We’ll only manage to take advantage of this chance if our elected officials and policymakers focus on the problem at hand and resist the temptation to score political points.
But we can be certain of one thing: it isn’t aliens.