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A series of balloon incursions over North American airspace in the first half of February 2023 have prompted the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to discuss modernisation.  

Meeting with Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand at the Pentagon on 10 February 2023, US Defense Secretary Lloyd J Austin III thanked Minister Anand for Canada’s contribution to tracking and analysis of the high-altitude balloons and support for what a US Department of Defense press release called the “US response to the PRC’s [China’s] unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.

Recent events began with the detection on 28 January of what the US military later confirmed was a Chinese surveillance balloon when it entered US airspace at an altitude of around 18,300 m (60,000 ft) near the Aleutian Islands. From there it travelled over Alaska and Canada before re-entering US airspace over Idaho and traversing the continental United States. The balloon was ultimately shot down on 4 February by a USAF F-22 fighter about 9.7 km (six miles) off the coast of South Carolina within US territorial waters, where its debris would not pose a threat to anyone on the ground and could be recovered for analysis.

NORAD then detected three other high-altitude objects over Alaska, northern Canada and Lake Huron on 10, 11 and 12 February respectively. These were all shot down by US fighters as their altitudes, which were lower than the Chinese surveillance balloon, were deemed a threat to civil aviation. Details on the exact nature of these objects have not yet been released.

Attention to modernising NORAD comes after its commander, General Glen VanHerck, admitted in a 6 February press briefing that previous balloon overflights of the US during both the Biden and Trump administrations had not been detected by NORAD. “Every day as a NORAD commander it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America. I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,” said the general. “And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out, but I don’t want to go in further detail.”

Gen VanHerck said that NORAD was only subsequently informed of those previous balloon flights by US intelligence collection activities.

During their 10 February meeting Austin and Anand also discussed support for Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion, continuing efforts being made to improve security in Haiti, and “close co-ordination on a range of other bilateral and global issues”.

Peter Felstead