The recent shootdowns of three unidentified aerial objects in as many days have publicly revealed shortcomings in the U.S. military’s air defense system for North America that both the United States and Canada have been working to fix.

U.S. military aircraft shot down the objects on Feb. 10, 11, and 12 in American and Canadian airspace. The three engagements came roughly a week after a Chinese spy balloon flew across the United States before it was ultimately downed on Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina.

President Joe Biden later said that evidence suggests the three downed objects were likely neither Chinese nor surveillance vehicles.

“The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation, or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” Biden said during a Feb. 16 statement from the White House.

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One theory about the object shot down over Yukon Territory, Canada on Feb. 11 is that it could have been a hobby balloon launched by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, Steve Trimble of Aviation Week first reported on Feb. 16.

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A U.S. Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane pilot looks down at the Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovered over the central United States February 3, 2023. (Defense Department)

Following the downing of the Chinese spy balloon on Feb. 4, North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, adjusted its radars to look for small objects at high altitudes traveling at slow speeds, said Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM.

“With some adjustments, we’ve been able to get a better categorization of radar tracks now,” VanHerck told reporters at a Feb. 12 Pentagon news briefing. “And that’s why I think you’re seeing these overall.”

It is unclear what the aerial objects were because U.S. and Canadian authorities were unable to recover any debris from the three objects. If they were in fact harmless balloons, as Biden has said, then why couldn’t NORAD determine that they were innocuous?

One reason is that the objects had smaller radar signatures than the Chinese spy balloon, and that made them harder to be detected and tracked on radar as well as identified by aircraft, said Canadian Air Force Maj. Olivier Gallant, a spokesman for NORAD.

However, retired Navy Vice Adm. Mike Dumont, a former deputy commander at NORTHCOM, has told NBC News that the system of U.S. military radar sites that scan American and Canadian airspace for threats is based on 1980s technology.

“When you think about the ability to integrate all kinds of sensors into a warning system, we’re just not there,” Dumont told NBC. “We don’t have a central consolidated point to integrate these systems into one … The guts of the system need to be upgraded.”

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A 138th Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcon from Tulsa Air National Guard Base, Oklahoma, flies next to a KC-135R Stratotanker April 25, 2019. (Courtesy photo by Mike Killian)

The U.S. and Canadian militaries rely on the North Warning System, or NWS, a chain of 46 radar sites in Canada and three in Alaska, to monitor North American airspace, Gallant told Task & Purpose. These radar sites were built between 1986 and 1992 and they include 10 long-range and 36 short-range radars in Canada.

While NORAD uses a sophisticated network of sensors to detect and identify aircraft in U.S. and Canadian airspace, VanHerck has repeatedly acknowledged publicly that the system has “domain awareness gaps,” Gallant said.

Two days after an F-22 Raptor shot down the Chinese spy balloon with an AIM 9X Sidewinder missile, VanHerck told reporters that NORAD had failed to detect four previous Chinese surveillance balloons, which had flown through American airspace in recent years.

“That’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” VanHerck said at a Feb. 6 Pentagon news briefing. “But I don’t want to go [into] further detail.”

Such gaps are why both the United States and Canada announced in August 2021 that they would field new technologies to eventually replace the North Warning System, Gallant said.

Since then, Congress has funded four Over the Horizon Radars, or OTHR, and Canada has announced plans to build two such radar systems, Gallant said.

NORAD radar
U.S. and Canadian service members participate in the third series of Global Information Dominance Experiments (GIDE 3) at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command Headquarters, July 8-16, 2021. (Courtesy Department of Defense)

“The OTHR initiatives will provide long-range surveillance of the northern approaches by establishing a northward-aimed, high-frequency, over-the-horizon-radar system,” Gallant said. “More specifically, they will provide better domain awareness for early detection of air and sea-launched cruise missiles, small unmanned systems, and hypersonic glide vehicles from [the] Arctic Circle.” 

Lawmakers from both political parties have said they support efforts to help NORAD better track and identify aircraft.

U.S Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that the Biden administration should publicly release a plan on how it plans to protect American airspace.

“I am working with NORAD and NORTHCOM to evaluate any capability gaps in its radar and warning systems,” Rogers told Task & Purpose. “We must make sure that NORAD and NORTHCOM have the resources to ensure the safety of the homeland and sovereign airspace from the evolving threats of our adversaries.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who was livid after the Chinese spy balloon flew over his state, said he has met with VanHerck to make sure NORAD has a plan to prevent foreign adversaries from violating American airspace in the future.

“I will continue to work with him and our military leaders to ensure they have the resources they need to defend our country,” Tester, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told Task & Purpose.

But until replacement capabilities are in place, the United States and Canada plan to continue to use the existing North Warning System, according to an Aug. 14, 2021, joint statement from both countries.

“The potential role of NWS sites in the future surveillance network has not yet been determined,” Gallant said. “Since the NWS provides additional capabilities beyond radar surveillance, such as those that support command, control, and communications, this is a complex question that involves further planning.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said that the Over-the-Horizon radars that Congress has funded will help to modernize the America’s air defenses, but the military needs more sensors in order to track and identify unidentified aerial objects, which the military calls Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena, or UAP.

Gillibrand, chair of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, stressed the importance of the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, which the Defense Department established in July 2022.

“AARO, the office we established to analyze and track unidentified objects, will play a key role in resolving reports of UAPs, which will improve the ability of operators to assess objects they identify and therefore potentially decreasing response times,” Gillibrand said. “It is critical that we have radars and sensors in multiple domains to provide a strong air defense.”

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