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

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

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
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Last weekend, the US shot down three unidentified objects — one over Michigan’s Lake Huron Sunday afternoon, a flying object over Canada Saturday, and on Friday another over Alaska.

The US still doesn’t know exactly what the three objects are, but President Joe Biden said Thursday that they “were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation, or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.”

In other words, they probably weren’t related to the Chinese ballon shot down in US coastal waters off South Carolina earlier this month. That balloon ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Beijing — though Biden said Thursday that he’d like to work through the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping, even as he made “no apologies for taking down that balloon.”

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. According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the objects taken down Friday and Saturday were “much smaller” than the Chinese ballon, which officials said had been gathering limited intelligence about US military installations (though its path over the continental US might have been partially an accident).

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.

After the balloon incident, the US adjusted its monitoring systems, Biden said Thursday, implying that the three UFOs taken down over the weekend aren’t a sign of “a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky,” but rather that the US is “now just seeing more of them.”

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.

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

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.

Given the increased attention to the skies and the three UFO incidents over the weekend, Biden said Thursday he had “directed my team to come back to me with sharper rules for how we will deal with these unidentified objects moving forward, distinguishing — distinguishing between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not.”

The three UFOs were likely benign — but the Chinese balloon incident 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 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 [US Secretary of State Antony] 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.

This week, the Washington Post reported that the balloon may have been blown off course.

Yet the incident still rattled 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, Blinken decided to postpone his trip to China.

“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.” Beijing also vowed to “take countermeasures against relevant US entities that have undermined our sovereignty and security.”

As experts told Vox’s Jonathan Guyer, “war with China is not inevitable, even if tensions feel as high as ever. But more needs to be done now to put guard rails on the fraught relationship between the two countries so that the next unidentified flying object doesn’t lead to unintended conflict.”

Update, February 17, 11 am: This piece was originally published on February 12 and has been updated twice to reflect new reporting about the nature of the three objects and President Biden’s response to them.

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