What’s Going on Over North America?

Fighting the eyes in the sky

General Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, arrives for a closed-door briefing at the U.S. Capitol on February 9.
General Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, arrives for a closed-door briefing at the U.S. Capitol on February 9. (Drew Angerer / Getty)

Updated at 8:05 p.m. ET on February 13, 2023

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Over the past few weeks, U.S. military aircraft have shot down four “objects” over North America, one of which U.S. officials claim was a Chinese surveillance balloon. This is unusual but not a cause for panic.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

99 Red (Chinese?) Balloons

Almost everyone of, ahem, a certain age will remember the 1983 hit song “99 Red Balloons” by the German singer Nena. A classic bit of Cold War pop culture, the lyrics tell a story of a girl buying some balloons and letting them go into the air—where they are promptly misidentified as a threat by the world’s militaries, who then mistakenly launch World War III and destroy the planet. The song ends leaving Nena “standing pretty” in “this dust that was a city.” (Or, if you prefer the original German lyrics, die Welt in Trümmern liegen [“the world lies in ruins.”])

So let’s start by noting that whatever is going over the United States and Canada, it’s not that kind of threat. There are some objects over our shared continent, and these objects, according to both Washington and Ottawa, don’t belong there. Four of them have been shot down, including one taken down in an operation by NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canadian command that has been defending North American airspace since the early days of the Cold War. This is a first: Until last week, NORAD had never shot down anything.

These facts don’t tell us very much, and with so much still unclear, the Biden administration isn't sharing a whole lot at the moment. So let’s consider a few possibilities.

The simplest answer is that these objects are Chinese surveillance balloons. The National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, said today that China “has a high-altitude balloon program for intelligence collection” and that at the present time, the program isn’t very good, but it’s improving. In a clapback at the administration’s critics, Kirby noted that the Chinese program “was operating during the previous administration, but they did not detect it. We detected it.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday claimed that the object downed on February 4 off the coast of South Carolina, along with two other objects taken down over Alaska and Canada, were all surveillance balloons. This assertion is especially plausible given the alacrity with which the Canadians, after consultation with the Americans, ordered NORAD jets to destroy the object over the Yukon. (The Canadian rationale was that the object posed a threat to commercial aviation, but Canada’s defense minister noted that it was “potentially similar” to the first balloon downed off the U.S. coast.)

Beijing, according to Center for a New American Security’s CEO, Richard Fontaine, has been ever more assertive in testing North American skies with these balloons. Although the Chinese so far are in high dudgeon over these accusations, officials have admitted that another object spotted over Latin America belonged to the People’s Republic; they claimed that it was a meteorological balloon blown off course, and later reportedly apologized to Costa Rica for entering that country’s airspace. But the strongest evidence that the Chinese have been surging balloon flights over North America—where they could linger over targets as mobile observation posts—is that Beijing is now accusing the United States of doing exactly the same thing over China, an allegation the United States has denied.

In authoritarian regimes, many accusations are confessions.

Chinese mischief, however, doesn’t seem to explain the things that do not seem very balloonlike, including “octagonal” or “cylindrical” objects such as the ones destroyed by NORAD over Lake Huron and the Yukon. When asked yesterday to speculate about possible extraterrestrial origins of these objects, the NORAD commander General Glen VanHerck said, “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.” That’s really just a military boilerplate answer when no one knows what’s going on, and Kirby today dismissed theories about aliens.

But if they’re not aliens, what are they? One possibility is that they’re other civilian airships, or junk of some kind floating around in the atmosphere that until now fell below NORAD’s definition of a threat. Remember, NORAD was created in the late 1950s to defend the U.S. and Canada against Soviet missile and bomber attacks, not to look for slow-moving balloons.

Now, as one U.S. official put it, “we basically opened the filters,” meaning that North American air defenses are now intentionally looking for smaller objects. As the Atlantic contributing writer Juliette Kayyem notes, if it seems like we’re now finding more of them, it’s because we’re actively looking for them. And as Kirby noted in today’s briefing, pilots flying at hundreds of miles an hour are trying to identify essentially stationary objects, so it’s too early to ask for a precise description.

Still, if both the U.S. and Canadian governments are confident enough about what they’re seeing to issue orders to open fire on these objects, the public may wonder why its leaders are not saying more about the targets.

As usual with military and intelligence operations, there are several reasons to hold information close at this point. We don’t want to tip off adversaries about how much we know, how much we were actually able to see in detail, and how quickly we could spot these objects. The United States has already begun to recover some of the debris, but it is never a good idea to share exactly how much of an opponent’s technology is in our hands.

(By the way, the armchair generals who are eager to send up more jets to shoot down yet more things should step back for a moment. The decision to engage an unidentified object always carries the risk of a mistake or an accident—or of endangering civilians on the ground. To return to 1983 for a moment, recall that the former Soviet Union had an itchy trigger finger when it came to incursions of its airspace, which is why in September of that year, a Soviet fighter jet shot down a South Korean civilian airliner, killing all 269 people aboard.)

For now, Washington and Ottawa have determined that these objects were violating U.S. and Canadian sovereignty, that they posed a real threat to commercial aviation, and that they had no business being where they were. We are unlikely to get more than that, other than confirmation of who owned these things—which is clearly making the Chinese somewhat sweaty. As is so often the case in national-security affairs, this is a time for patience and analysis rather than intemperance and panic.


Today’s News

  1. About 100,000 protesters from across Israel gathered outside Parliament in Jerusalem to oppose the sweeping judicial overhaul that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has proposed.
  2. President Joe Biden fired the architect of the Capitol after allegations that he had misused government resources.
  3. A Georgia judge ordered the partial release of a special-grand-jury report investigating efforts by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election.


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Evening Read

Gif of a music note with hearts
Ben Hickey

The Enduring Romance of Mixtapes

By Andee Tagle

Six years ago, when my now-husband was still just a friendly old flame from my high-school days, I sent him an Apple Music playlist of my favorite songs of the moment. This was not unusual: Song swapping, album recommendations, and musical one-upmanship had kept us in touch for nearly a decade. Instead of a coffee date, it was “Have you heard of Noname?” In lieu of a lengthy phone call, it was “Listened to the new GoldLink album yet?”

On this playlist, the final track was “Saved” by the R&B artist Khalid. “But I’ll keep your number saved / ’Cause I hope one day you’ll get the sense to call me,” goes the swoony chorus. “I’m hoping that you’ll say / You’re missing me the way I’m missing you.” It was an innocent offering, I swear! But for my now-husband, it was an opening. “That song told me there was a chance,” he told me years later. In 2022, we added it to the must-play list at our wedding.

Read the full article.

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Culture Break

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Watch. The Empress, on Netflix, a German-language period drama about “a Habsburg Meghan Markle,” as our writer puts it.

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Okay, so maybe it’s not Chinese balloons. Maybe the aliens are about to invade. If so, I have the perfect soundtrack for you.

Back in 1978, the British musician and producer Jeff Wayne came up with the brilliantly weird idea of turning the classic H. G. Wells book The War of the Worlds into a rock musical, and thus was born an offbeat but wonderful double-album set, released that spring. Wayne stayed true to the source material, even hiring Richard Burton to do the narration. The musicians and cast included Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, David Essex, and Julie Covington. Despite mixing orchestral music with rock and disco, the whole thing works, and Hayward even scored a hit in America that fall with the haunting “Forever Autumn,” a song that’s been one of my personal favorites for more than 45 years. The album has remained a popular seller, and in 2011, it was rerecorded with a new cast, with Liam Neeson sitting in for the long-deceased Burton. (I am, however, not a fan of the remake.) It has also been performed live in various venues.

To this day, whenever I hear someone talk about aliens, all I can hear is Hayward singing, “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said.” (This is after Burton talks to the astronomer, Ogilvy, who pishposhes away concerns about the green flashes on the Martian surface that turn out to be the invading rockets.) And I still get chills hearing the electronic “ULLA!” that in the book was the Martian death rattle, but that Wayne reimagined as their battle cry. It’s one of the strangest albums in rock history but well worth an extended listen, if only to hear Burton’s whiskey-and-velvet voice one more time.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.

This article has been updated to clarify that the jets dispatched over the Yukon belonged to NORAD.