Intelligence expert thinks Trudeau’s handling of alleged spy balloon adequate

Feb 15, 2023 | Canadian News, International News, News

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Canadian-U.S. organization for North American air defense, shot down three objects over Alaska, Yukon, and Lake Huron near the Canadian border.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday there was some sort of pattern behind the three flying objects spotted over North American airspace in the past week.

His statement came as Canadian and U.S. authorities worked to recover debris from these downed objects to confirm exactly what they were.

The operation reflected heightened scrutiny following an alleged Chinese spy balloon downed off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4, said John Kirby, the U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications.

The first object was shot down near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Feb. 4. The second object was shot down near Deadhorse, Alaska on Feb. 10. The third object was shot down over Yukon on Feb. 11. The fourth object was shot down over Lake Huron, Michigan near the Canadian border on Feb. 12.

NORAD shoots down four unidentified aerial objects in the North American airspace between Feb. 4 and Feb. 12. The map denotes when and where each object was shot down. Photo credit: Philip Lau

John R. Ferris, a professor at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said while the nature of the three subsequent objects remained unclear, there was nothing wrong shooting them down.

“The one that was shot down over Yukon was actually flying in air space, which commercial aircrafts use,” Ferris said. “And under those circumstances, destroying that airship is perfectly appropriate.

“The Americans shot one down over Alaska because, essentially they said, it’s not ours, it’s drifting into our territory, and we don’t want it,” he said.

Kirby said on Monday the United States would err on the side of safety when it comes to national security.

“Even though we had no indications that any of these three objects were surveilling, we couldn’t rule that out,” he said.

Some have criticized the Canadian and U.S. governments for not acting as swiftly over the first alleged Chinese spy balloon that was detected.

Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre said in a statement on Sunday the Trudeau government had failed to combat growing threats from Beijing.

Shooting down the balloons was the right thing to do, Poilievre said.

But Ferris said the Canadian government was likely on an equal footing with the U.S. regarding the first balloon, as command within NORAD is binational.

“My own guess is the Canadian authorities in NORAD understood as much as the American ones did about what was going on,” he said.

Ferris also said that although the U.S. became aware of a possible Chinese spy balloon program two years ago, it could be the first time it dealt with such a problem in its airspace.

“If you don’t take the idea of a balloon as an intelligence platform seriously, you won’t look for it,” he said. “And if you won’t look for it, you won’t find evidence.”

Kirby said small, slow-moving objects at high altitudes like the alleged Chinese spy balloon are difficult to detect on radar. Even if these objects were spotted, deep examination had not been the government’s usual practice, he said.

The incident represented a change as the United States took a more cautious approach towards potential Chinese aerial surveillance, Kirby said.

“We detected it. We tracked it. And we have been carefully studying it to learn as much as we can,” he said.

Ferris said not shooting down the first balloon until it reached the Atlantic coast was a rational and standard response.

“They wanted to recover the route. They wanted to find out what equipment was on the board,” he said.

But Ferris said he doubted the United States will reveal “anything top secret” from the debris, as overhead collection is not something new.

“My guess would be they will be able to reconstruct the collection capabilities of the platform, which is what you want to do,” he said.

Kirby said the United States believes spy balloons do not collect much more intelligence from China than other existing platforms.

“But in the future, if the PRC (People’s Republic of China) continues to advance this technology, it certainly could become more valuable to them,” he said.

Ferris said he thinks NORAD will now try to destroy every balloon before it reaches North American airspace.

“One single flight is unlikely to provide signals, intelligence or materials that are going to be world shaking,” he said. “But nobody likes the idea of somebody intercepting their signals above their head.”