There appears to be “some sort of pattern” emerging given that three additional aerial objects have been shot down over American and Canadian airspace since initial reports of a suspected Chinese spy balloon surfaced nearly two weeks ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.
Trudeau made the comments in Yukon on Monday where a search is ongoing for an “unidentified object” that was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet on his command after violating Canadian airspace on Saturday.
“Obviously there is some sort of pattern in there. The fact that we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention, which is exactly what we’re doing,” Trudeau told reporters at a news conference.
“We’ve deployed significant resources here to be able to recover the object, as well as diplomatic and international engagements going on to find more information and to get solutions on this.”
What we know so far
NORAD – the continental air defence network – is on “heightened alert” after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the coast of the Carolinas on Feb. 4, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, told reporters on Sunday.
That balloon, which China has claimed was a weather aircraft, was shot down two days after American officials first acknowledged it and a week after it first entered U.S. and Canadian airspace. In the eight days since that takedown, American jets have shot down three “unidentified objects” over Alaska, Yukon and Lake Huron near Ontario and Michigan.
While the Chinese balloon has been recovered and is being examined by American personnel, officials are still searching for the other three objects to determine what they were and where they’re from.
“Our focus right now is on recovering it. Obviously, there is much analysis going on at the highest levels of NORAD in both Canada and the United States to try and understand more, to facilitate in the location of the object and to understand better and be able to answer the questions that Canadians have,” Trudeau said.
“As soon as we have more clarity and better answers to give to Canadians, we will be giving them.”
In a technical briefing with reporters on Monday, the Canadian Forces’ Maj.-Gen. Paul Prevost said that “these three last objects didn’t look anything like the first object that we dealt with.”
“The other ones were smaller in size, different, but follow the same pattern,” Prevost added.
Sean McGillis, executive director of federal policing strategic management with the RCMP, added that while the search remains underway, conditions are highly challenging.
“We’re working very hard to locate them but there’s no guarantee we will,” he said, adding he remains “very hopeful.”
After news of the suspected spy balloon emerged earlier this month, the U.S. military has been adjusting its radar to find flying objects — including balloons — that are smaller, slower and differently shaped than enemy aircraft and missiles that have long preoccupied the Pentagon.
The recent takedowns of the three still-unidentified objects began on Friday when the United States shot down a “high-altitude” object as it flew over Alaska near the northern Canadian border.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby would not say at the time if the object was a balloon or what entity owned it. He said the object, about the size of a “small car,” was flying at 40,000 feet and posed a “reasonable threat” to civilian aircraft.
On Saturday, Global News published an exclusive report at 3:36 p.m. Eastern that NORAD officials were monitoring additional objects that could be more spy balloons. Within minutes of publication, NORAD confirmed in a statement that it had “positively identified a high-altitude airborne object over Northern Canada.”
Canadian CF-18s and American F-22s were scrambled from nearby airbases, Trudeau said in a tweet he had ordered the “unidentified object that violated Canadian airspace” over Yukon to be shot down. An American F-22 jet downed the object.
National Defence Minister Anita Anand said on Saturday the object is “potentially similar to the one that was shot down to the one shot down off the coast of North Carolina, though smaller in size and cylindrical in nature.”
“To our knowledge, this is the first instance of NORAD downing an object in Canadian airspace, and the importance of this moment should not be underestimated. We detected this object together and we defeated this together,” she said.
The object was flying at approximately 40,000 feet and “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” Anand added.
Trudeau said on Monday the object was shot down “over fairly unpopulated and sparsely populated territory,” and that Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP personnel have been deployed to find it. The search efforts include personnel specialized in handling hazardous cargo, he said.
Trudeau added the search area is between Dawson City and Mayo, Yukon, which are roughly 230 kilometres apart by vehicle, according to Google Maps.
“We are obviously sending a lot of Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP resources to lead on the search in the coming days, but as time goes on, we will for sure have different instructions to give to local outfitters and trappers and people who may be in the area,” he said.
“For now, however, it really needs to be the Canadian Armed Forces leading the recovery efforts because as I’ve said, we don’t know the degree of hazard that could be involved in this object that was downed.”
Anand issued a series of tweets on Monday afternoon describing the efforts underway.
She said the Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed a CC-130H Hercules search and rescue aircraft, two CC-138 Twin Otter utility transport aircrafts which can also be used in search missions, plus a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter and a CH-149 Cormorant, which is an all-weather search and rescue helicopter.
“The debris is located in a remote location northeast of Dawson City, in complex alpine terrain that is prone to challenging northern weather conditions,” Anand continued, and thanked the Canadian Forces Special Operations Command as part of the team working with RCMP and other military members.
Finally, on Sunday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down an “unidentified object” over Lake Huron on orders from U.S. President Joe Biden.
The object was flying at approximately 20,000 feet in U.S. airspace over Lake Huron in the state of Michigan, the Pentagon said. It likely fell into Canadian waters, U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck said on Sunday.
“Its path and altitude raised concerns, including that it could be a hazard to civil aviation. The location chosen for this shoot down afforded us the opportunity to avoid impact to people on the ground while improving chances for debris recovery. There are no indications of any civilians hurt or otherwise affected,” the Pentagon said in a readout.
The object appeared to be octagonal in structure, with strings hanging off but no discernible payload, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters.
What we don't know
Kirby said on Monday the three objects have been identified yet. It’s also unclear where the objects originated from.
The downing of the original suspected spy balloon on Feb. 4 has worsened Chinese relations with the United States and Canada. Its discovery prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to China many had hoped would put the brakes on the sharp decline in relations over Taiwan, trade, human rights and threatening Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea.
China has said that balloon shot down by the United States was an unmanned airship made for meteorological research that had been blown off course.
It has accused the U.S. of overreacting by shooting it down and threatened to take unspecified action in response. It’s unclear where the three objects recently downed originated from.
China’s foreign ministry has said it had no information on the latest three flying objects shot down by the U.S.
An American official told a U.S. Senate committee last week that the balloon was part of a “broader suite of operations” that are underway by Beijing.
Jedidiah Royal, the U.S. assistant defence secretary for the Indo-Pacific, told a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee Thursday that the military has “some very good guesses” about what intelligence China was seeking.
When pressed on what information the balloon was specifically trying to gather, Royal said U.S. officials “are learning more as we exploit the contents of the balloon and the payload itself.”
“We understand that this is part of a broader suite of operations that China is undertaking to try to get a better understanding of the U.S.,” Royal said.
His public comments came just hours after AP reported on Wednesday that China’s balloon was equipped to collect intelligence signals and was part of a huge, military-linked aerial spy program that targeted more than 40 countries.
Similar balloons have floated over five continents, according to the Biden administration. China admitted last Monday that a balloon travelling over Latin America was also theirs.
— with files from Global News’ Mercedes Stephenson and Reuters
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