What the Hell Are We Shooting Out of the Sky?

It's probably not strange visitors from outer space but we can't rule it out.

So, the other day the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon, generating mostly bemusement. Since then, several other incidents have followed.

BBC (“Mystery surrounds objects shot down by US military“):

The US military is unsure what three flying objects it shot out of the skies over North America were – and how they were able to stay aloft.

President Joe Biden ordered another object – the fourth in total this month – to be downed on Sunday.

As it was travelling at 20,000ft (6,100m), it could have interfered with commercial air traffic, the US said.

A military commander said it could be a “gaseous type of balloon” or “some type of a propulsion system”.

He added he could not rule out that the objects were extra-terrestrials.

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m willing to bet considerable money that this is not an alien invasion. And I’m shocked that a US military commander has had such poor communications training as to not dodge that question more artfully.

The latest object – shot down over Lake Huron in Michigan near the Canadian border – has been described by defence officials as an unmanned “octagonal structure” with strings attached to it.

It was downed by a missile fired from an F-16 fighter jet at 14:42 local time (19:42 GMT).

The incident raises further questions about the spate of high-altitude objects that have been shot down over North America this month.

US Northern Command Commander General Glen VanHerck said that there was no indication of any threat.

“I’m not going to categorise them as balloons. We’re calling them objects for a reason,” he said.

“What we are seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section,” he added.

Speculation as to what the objects may be has intensified in recent days.

“I will let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” Gen VanHerck said when asked if it was possible the objects are aliens or extra-terrestrials.

“I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.”

Almost by definition, if one has not identified an object, one can’t categorically rule out theoretical objects. But, rather than fueling the cranks and weirdos, something like “There is no evidence whatsoever that would lead us to believe that they are aliens or extra-terrestrials” would be far more reassuring.

A suspected Chinese spy balloon was downed off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February after hovering for days over the US. Officials said it originated in China and had been used to monitor sensitive sites.

China denied the object was used for spying and said it was a weather monitoring device that had blown astray. The incident – and the angry exchanges in its aftermath – ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Beijing.

But on Sunday, a defence official said the US had communicated with Beijing about the first object, after receiving no response for several days. It was not immediately clear what was discussed.

Since that first incident, American fighter jets have shot down three further high-altitude objects in as many days.

President Biden ordered an object to be shot down over northern Alaska on Friday, and on Saturday a similar object was shot down over the Yukon in north-western Canada.

Both the US and Canada are still working to recover the remnants, but the search in Alaska has been hampered by Arctic conditions.

“These objects did not closely resemble, and were much smaller than, the [4 February] balloon and we will not definitively characterise them until we can recover the debris,” a White House National Security spokesperson said.

The obvious question that springs to mind is, If we don’t know what the objects are, why is it that we’re shooting them down? Wouldn’t some sort of surveillance make it more likely that we could ascertain their origin?

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday the US has flown balloons into its airspace more than 10 times in the past year.

“It’s not uncommon as well for the US to illegally enter the airspace of other countries,” said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin at a press briefing.

While I assume the Chinese government is lying, I also wouldn’t be surprised if we were conducting some sort of intelligence overflights of their territory. Indeed, I rather hope we are.

Detection of the most recent objects could be a result of widening the search from radars and sensors.

“We have been more closely scrutinising our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar,” said Melissa Dalton, an assistant secretary of defence, said.

So, it’s possible that these objects—which, for all we know could be flying dogs from Krypton whose natural abilities have been enhanced by the rays from our yellow sun—have been flying for years—centuries even—and we’re just now realizing it?

An official told the Washington Post it was like a car buyer unticking boxes on a website to broaden the parameters of what can be searched.

That official is not good with analogies. Unless President Biden is the buyer and the US intelligence community is the website.

One senior official told ABC News that the three most recent objects to be shot down were likely weather devices and not surveillance balloons.

Then why scramble jets and shoot them down, at not only considerable cost but, presumably, non-zero risk of collateral damage? Not to mention potentially triggering an inter-stellar war by shooting down what, for all we know, could be an intergalactic star baby.

But this was seemingly contradicted by the top Democrat in Congress, who earlier told the broadcaster that intelligence officials believed the objects were in fact surveillance balloons.

“They believe they were [balloons], yes,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, adding that they were “much smaller” than the first one shot down off the South Carolina coast.

Why bother to brief the Majority Leader in private if he’s just going to blab to reporters?

Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who represents Montana, told the BBC’s US partner CBS: “What’s gone on the last two weeks or so… has been nothing short of craziness.”

Considering events in the United States since 2016 or so, this barely moves the needle on craziness.

Republicans have repeatedly criticised the Biden administration for its handling of the first suspected spy balloon, saying it should have been shot down far sooner.

Of course they have. And they’re likely criticizing them for shooting these down too soon.

Other countries are watching the response in the US closely, in case an object is discovered in their airspace.

In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his government would do “whatever it takes” to keep the country safe.

“We have something called the quick reaction alert force which involves Typhoon planes, which are kept on 24/7 readiness to police our airspace, which is incredibly important,” he added.

But did he check the right boxes on the car website? Inquiring minds want to know.

CNN White House correspondent Stephen Collinson offers this analysis:

Even at the height of last century’s Cold War, when US jets often headed off Soviet aircraft testing North American and European defenses, pilots weren’t typically sent off to shoot down unidentified objects over the US and Canada. It’s not normal for Americans to settle down for the Super Bowl with their president firing off orders to blast unknown objects out of the North American sky.

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

So the events of the last few days do provoke serious national security and political questions that stretch far beyond the often narrow political battle in Washington, and that can only be assessed once more details are understood.

They include:

  • Are the latest incidents linked in any way to Beijing’s espionage program described by the administration after the shooting down of the Chinese balloon and other reported crossings of other balloons over US territory? Any indication of successive Chinese breaches of US airspace would mark a serious twist in US-China relations already tested by a belligerent Beijing at what may be the start of a 21st century Cold War.
  • If they are not related to China, are the latest strange objects flying over North America linked to some other hostile power or group, corporate or private entity? Are they even connected to one another or are they simply the result of coincidences at a time of heightened awareness and tensions?
  • If the latter situation is the case, is NORAD now picking up more objects that are potentially hostile given a state of heightened alert after the Chinese balloon crisis? If the objects are suspicious is there a sudden spike in such flights or did such objects fly across the continent with impunity in the past? Given the already increased threat to civilian aircraft – for instance from more low flying drones – is this a new problem that that should concern the aviation industry?
  • Finally, what is the political impact of this string 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 this month. He forcibly warned China in his subsequent State of the Union address that he would defend US sovereignty. Since then, his aides have styled his response to subsequent incidents as those of a decisive commander in chief. This shows that the White House understands the political peril in wait if Americans were to perceive he was not doing everything to defend the homeland.

The political blame game is heating up. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” GOP Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, linked the incursions of US air space to Republican claims that Biden is failing to protect the southern border and complained that senior officials were not briefing Congress enough. And he also adopted a novel critique of Biden given claims that the president didn’t act quickly enough before.

“They do appear somewhat trigger-happy, although this is certainly preferable to the permissive environment that they showed when the Chinese spy balloon was coming over some of our most sensitive sites,” Turner told Jake Tapper.

So, yes, Republicans are simultaneously calling Biden “trigger-happy” and creating a “permissive environment.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    Well, that renowned astrophysicist Marjorie Taylor Greene states unequivocally that we are NOT undergoing an alien invasion, so that should set all minds at rest.

  2. Jen says:

    The obvious question that springs to mind is, If we don’t know what the objects are, why is it that we’re shooting them down? Wouldn’t some sort of surveillance make it more likely that we could ascertain their origin?

    Yeah, but more than half of Congress and a bunch of people in the media absolutely lost their sh!t when we did wait, so now apparently it’s shoot first and ask questions later.

    That military commander needs to go through media training again. Especially the part about not volunteering hypotheticals.

  3. Kylopod says:


    Well, that renowned astrophysicist Marjorie Taylor Greene states unequivocally that we are NOT undergoing an alien invasion, so that should set all minds at rest.

    Well, she knows it wasn’t aliens who fired those space lasers. What, do you take her for some kind of flake?

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Balloons would be a brilliant way to seed diseases, though. Aerosolize and by the time the bugs are dispersed on wind currents and slowly drift down, there’ll be no proving the balloons were the source.

    Sorry. I make up stories for a living.

  5. Andy says:

    NORTHCOM PR has handled this all very badly.

    Essentially what’s happened is that NORAD changed the settings on the air defense surveillance network to be better able to detect balloons by essentially loosening the criteria for the system to display a valid contact. That is what is meant with car website analogy – the filters on the air defense surveillance system were lessened so that balloons and balloon-like objects would no longer be filtered out.

    A side effect of that is that it increases the amount of noise and anomalies in the system. One example of this was the “object” detected over Montana over the weekend – fighters were dispatched and nothing was found – likely because it was a system anomaly.

    Contrary to what you see in movies and on TV, radar and other types of electronic surveillance aren’t simplistic blips on a screen.

    Anyway, these changes appear to be working and we are now detecting more objects – likely all balloons – and then NORAD is doing what it’s been trained and designed to do – go identify those objects and, on the orders of the President, shoot them down – which is what it has long done with airplanes.

    Leaving aside the confusion sown by bad PR, there are some fundamental questions that should be answered:

    – Does NORAD need to track high-altitude balloons?

    If so, then regulations should be put in place to put transponders on balloons (like is the case on aircraft) to allow them to be tracked. Then that tracking data will be synthesized with the radar/surveillance picture to determine which balloons do not have trackers (Hello Chinese balloons) and therefore need to be identified and which ones don’t need to be identified (Hello weather balloons). Essentially this would treat balloons in the same way we treat regular aircraft.

    The point being, without a systematic system for tracking and ID’ing balloons, NORAD is going to be launching alert aircraft to go ID them. Transponders on “friendly” balloons make this much easier on the system.

    Now, is this necessary? Do we even need to bother tracking high-altitude balloons? Eh, maybe. Balloons aren’t any kind of threat except for intelligence collection, and there is something to be said for collecting on them while they collect on us. And don’t believe the EMP bullshit that some are spreading.

    I’m sure there are a bunch of meetings this week at the Pentagon to decide where to go from here.

  6. Jen says:

    This whole thing is bound to negatively impact the NORAD Santa Tracker.

  7. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    If this is an Interstellar attack, and they are being shot down this easily, then I am not worried.
    Plus, I’m willing to sacrifice any Red States out that way.

  8. gVO08 says:

    I started joking about war with ET last week. But I’m sticking with my speculation in the Open Forum this morning. The SC object is clearly a large, sophisticated device. Chinese spy balloon is a good guess, especially since they seem to be admitting it. Prudhoe Bay, the Yukon, and Lake Huron? The sketchy info available seems to say much smaller and lower. I think we’re shooting down South Korean high school science projects. But I’d sure like to see some photographs. An F-22 pilot blowing by at 500 mph isn’t going to see much, but hopefully they got pics.

    A commenter somewhere, I didn’t find it here so maybe Marginal Revolution, said he used to launch high altitude balloons as a hobby. Said he notified the FAA but most hobbyists don’t bother.

    I’ve seen the car buyer check box thing elsewhere. It wasn’t treated as some sort of executive decision thing, just settings on the detection system. The settings for discriminating below some speed, some size, some radar reflection just got ratcheted down. So now we’re seeing more junk floating around than we knew about. And maybe the odd Chinese spy balloon.

    As to why did the dastardly Chinese do this just before Blinken’s visit, they have probably been launching these routinely for some years and continued doing so, not expecting us to notice it, much less freak out. I blame Biden. He’s just not feeding the media. Trump flung so much poo the press wouldn’t have cared about the odd spy balloon.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Good story, and if you want an expert in aerosols I’ll be happy to serve as a consultant when you get it to Hollywood. (I assume it pays tremendously). But unfortunately for you (although fortunately for the world) I would be Debbie Downer on your idea. Dispersing the aerosol by mixing in huge volumes of uncontaminated air is one of the best ways of mitigating risk. You know, like dropping it miles up where it will spread into literally hundreds of cubic miles of air before it reaches the ground.

    Based on what I’ve worked on, I could think of very effective and thrilling ways to accomplish very bad things but I would never say them out loud to anyone who wasn’t actively trying to prevent such things from occurring. Those would be the faceless government bureaucrats the Repubs are always going on about. I’ve talked to a few of them and am very glad they are there…

  10. Kathy says:


    Isn’t UV radiation of higher intensity at 60,000 ft?

    A better way would be to fly a crop duster plane above a large crowd. An even better way would be to send vials of virus to all Republiqan voters with the warning: DEADLY VIRUS! DO NOT OPEN! DO NOT INGEST, TOUCH, OR ASPIRATE! If the vial is broken CONTACT FEDERAL HEALTH AUTHORITIES IMMEDIATELY!

    I estimate a 20-30% uptake. Assume an R0 of 3-5, and you get an instant pandemic.

  11. dazedandconfused says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl:

    It’s all fun and games until the mother ship gets pissed, they say.

  12. Moosebreath says:


    “Well, that renowned astrophysicist Marjorie Taylor Greene states unequivocally that we are NOT undergoing an alien invasion”.

    Anyway, not another one. We already had the one which brought her to this planet.

  13. Gustopher says:

    Let’s get this out of the way: I’m willing to bet considerable money that this is not an alien invasion. And I’m shocked that a US military commander has had such poor communications training as to not dodge that question more artfully.

    Saying that they aren’t aliens likely opens up follow up questions that the government doesn’t want to answer, not even by accident.

    When leaving my job at Amazon a bunch of years ago, the company had some genuine concern that information about the software monitoring systems would go to a competitor. And, at the time, Amazon was way ahead of the industry, and it was a competitive advantage. They didn’t even want the high level overview shared as it might inspire folks to build something similar that they didn’t know they needed yet.

    I was told to say that they had no monitoring, if ever asked. That all errors on the website were discovered when customers emailed Jeff Bezos.

    It was a ridiculous, obviously false story, but it left no room for anything to slip.

    “We can’t confirm that it wasn’t aliens” sounds the same.

    (I did ask the folks at my that next job to describe what they thought Amazon was monitoring, and they were wildly wrong and very behind. Now there is off the shelf stuff that is almost as good.)

  14. CSK says:

    It just occurred to me that perhaps they want her back. But why?

  15. dazedandconfused says:


    Jim Hines of the Intel committee had been informed there is actually a lot of garbage up there in near space. Helium balloons launched by hobbyists, weather and climate researchers quite typically float around for months, residual zombies of research.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    The Sy Hersh report is not news to Russia.

    Yeah, I was afraid of that. It’s like the hoary ‘LSD in the reservoir!” thing that had a moment. As concentrated as LSD is. . .

    I could think of very effective and thrilling ways to accomplish very bad things

    I had this idea of rupturing gas pipes in the basement of a NY skyscraper prior to 911. Bypass the shut-offs. Timed spark. Did not pursue. Sometimes you dodge a bullet and didn’t even know it.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds: There are so many tropes in movies and TV’s that bug the hell out of me. Pouring sleeping gas into a room and everyone perfectly goes to sleep and no one dies. Conking someone on the head and they fall unconscious but then wake up a convenient time later with no brain damage, nor even a concussion. Getting shot in the muscle tissue of your leg but still being able to walk, then run on it, and 15 minutes later it doesn’t even show. Lazy writing!

  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    We’ve gone from trope to lamp-shading trope to subverting trope to meek acceptance of tropes. Successive generations of People Of The Screen. Once upon a time 0% of what we experienced was filtered through the screen. Then more. And more. Filtered reality replaces reality. All experiences pre-chewed. Re re re booting imagining framing interpreting cycling.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It’s probably not strange visitors from outer space but we can’t rule it out.

    Lacking any evidence it is from outer space, we can.

  20. Mister Bluster says:

    All I ever ask of those who claim the existence of outer space aliens is “bring me one”.

  21. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well, it’s tough to bet against stupid, but that “military commander” that brought in aliens seemed like it might have been an intentional thing, actually. A little bit of a mind game, maybe with the Chinese, maybe someone else. Don’t show your hand, that sort of thing.

  22. pilthm says:

    The curtain of BS has briefly slipped by who ever invents this stuff for the government. (Military Industrial Complex) Key, words from the White House, ” may have been benign ” think……… (may have).
    Its either gotta be one of two different scenarios. 1. Low hanging fruit to send the media and public into
    the new great mystery, while covering up something a lot bigger they want to hide. 2. Or something really
    scary that they have never dealt with before; like high technology they don’t understand or have never seen before, (not alien). Some type of ‘high tech’ prewar probe preparing the ground for an assault that cripples all US tech infrastructure. (No power / Internet down) I kinda lean toward number 2 option, they are in full panic mode and don’t know what to tell the public especially after this long…. they are scared. Are you ?