The Simple Explanation for All These Flying Objects

American air defense has been looking harder and reacting faster.

Blips on a radar screen
U.S. Navy / Interim Archives / Getty

The North American skies, it turns out, contain lots of unidentified objects. That is the unremarkable conclusion from a remarkable weekend in which fighter jets downed a trio of separate flying things—over Alaska, northern Canada, and Lake Huron. This weekend’s sky wars followed the identification and eventual downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon earlier this month, only after it had traversed the continental United States and was safely over U.S. waters.

This is a strange series of events. A single deployment of Air Force units to obliterate something in the sky is unusual; to have three more in close succession seems quite unprecedented. Is this activity connected to a sophisticated new Chinese plot? Russian opportunism? Some other aggression testing our systems? Aliens? Pentagon officials have downplayed that last possibility while offering little additional detail about what these objects are. Before Americans react with rage or fear over the apparent uptick in intrusions into our skies, we should consider the simplest explanation: a recalibration of the U.S. military’s policies on aerial intrusions. We are seeing the legacy of the Chinese-balloon incident, which put two new factors in play.

First, the U.S. is finding more things in the sky because it is looking for more things. The scope and quality of the surveillance of American skies have increased since the first incident earlier this month and the subsequent public revelation of previous Chinese incursions. Air-defense authorities have widened the camera aperture, so to speak, and doing so will give them more, not fewer, things to look at. This does not mean the objects are threatening or even new. Think of an MRI, which may find cell clumps that are cancerous—but will also find clumps that are innocuous and would be nothing but for the looking.

Second, just as our surveillance has increased, America’s standard for shooting stuff out of the sky is now lower. The Chinese balloon has made U.S. officials more willing to act, even knowing that many such cases could be false positives. American airspace is full of objects—balloons, surveillance equipment, corporate gizmos, various other innocuously errant devices—and American air defense seems to have been relatively tolerant of those in the past. After all, there is a lot of sky, and scrambling F-22s is expensive. The risk calculation now—is the device manned? Does it threaten commercial aviation? Would shooting it harm people below?—is being balanced well before any verification of what the thing is.

Recent events have increased the likelihood of a shootdown. Lest people around the world assume that the downed objects reflect hostile intentions, the White House should quickly disclose the nature of the objects now in U.S. possession, even if they are nothing significant. Especially if they are nothing significant. The U.S. cannot shoot first and then avoid asking or answering questions.

Is something nefarious going on? Maybe, maybe not. The U.S. may be under a new threat or finally seeing more evidence of an old threat, but perhaps none of this is new or terribly threatening. Jumping to only one conclusion, without considering others, is the quickest way to make a major national-security error.