Why wasn’t the suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down over Canada?
Critics say the U.S. and Canada had ample time to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it drifted across North America for a week, although it’s unlikely Canadian jets could have done the job.
“This was an outrageous intrusion,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan told CTVNews.ca. “If we were tracking this from the time it entered Alaskan airspace, the question is, why didn’t Norad take action sooner?”
Two hundred feet tall, manoeuvrable and with a payload of sensors the size of three school buses, the alleged surveillance balloon initially approached North America near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on Jan 28. According to officials, it crossed into Canadian airspace on Jan. 30, travelling above the Northwest Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan before re-entering the U.S. on Jan 31.
The presence of the balloon was made public on Feb. 1 as it flew above Montana, home to one of three U.S. nuclear missile silo sites. On the afternoon of Feb. 4, an American F-22 fighter jet finally brought it down with an air-to-air Sidewinder missile over the Atlantic Ocean near South Carolina. U.S. President Joe Biden has said he wanted it shot down sooner, but was advised to wait until it was above water to minimize potential damage and injuries from debris.
WHY WASN’T THE BALLOON SHOT DOWN SOONER?
In the U.S., Republican leaders have criticized the Biden administration for not downing the balloon as it traversed remote waters, vast tundra and sparsely-populated wilderness.
“It defies belief to suggest there was nowhere between the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and the coast of Carolina where this balloon could have been shot down right away without endangering Americans or Canadians,” U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a Feb. 5 statement.
“What if it had been weaponized?” Bezan, a Manitoba member of Parliament, added. “I think they had an opportunity to take it down over the Pacific… Why wouldn’t we have shot it down there before it even got to any populated regions?”
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Norad commander Gen. Glen D. VanHerck offered his rationale.
“It was my assessment that this balloon did not present a physical military threat to North America, this is under my Norad hat,” VanHerck, who heads the joint Canada-U.S. air defence group, said. “And therefore, I could not take immediate action because it was not demonstrating hostile act or hostile intent.”
VanHerck also confirmed that Canadian fighter jets were deployed to search for another potential spy balloon.
“There was some speculation about a second one,” VanHerck explained. “I launched Norad fighters, Canadian CF-18s and we were not able to corroborate any additional balloon.”
In a statement to CTVNews.ca, a spokesperson from Canada’s Department of National Defence provided a similar explanation.
“While the object was moving, analysis ruled out the possibility the balloon posed an imminent threat and further steps were taken to analyze it in collaboration with the U.S. and Norad,” the Canadian defence spokesperson said. “Canada closely engaged with American counterparts on the decision to bring down China’s high-altitude surveillance balloon, and unequivocally supports this action.”
Andrea Charron is an associate professor of political studies and the director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
“Time was likely needed to assess its capabilities,” Charron told CTVNews.ca. “Had there been a military risk, it would have been brought down sooner but it would have caused considerable damage on land even if it didn’t kill anyone.”
COULD CANADIAN CF-18 FIGHTER JETS DO THE JOB?
Even if Canada had wanted to bring the balloon down, we likely would have needed help from our U.S. allies to do so by air.
“Why didn’t Canada take stronger action when it was in our airspace?” Bezan said. “It speaks to capabilities that our current fleet of CF-18s can’t fly that high and target it.”
With a normal service ceiling of around 50,000 feet, Canada’s aging CF-18 fighter jets might have had trouble reaching the balloon, which was reportedly travelling at altitudes of around 60,000 feet. The U.S. F-22 that got the job done can reach heights of approximately 65,000 feet – and has mong the highest service ceilings of any American fighter jet. By comparisons, commercial jets usually don’t fly above 42,000 feet.
In 1998, a pair of Canadian CF-18 fighter jets also failed to shoot down a rogue weather balloon near Newfoundland, despite firing more than 1,000 cannon rounds into it. Air-to-air missiles – like the one used on the Chinese balloon – were ruled out at the time.
“Citizens would not have appreciated having a missile blowing over their heads,” a Canadian air force spokesperson told the Associate Press following the incident. “Also, it might be overkill spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a missile to shoot down a balloon that’s drifting away.”
According to the BBC, the hole-riddled balloon survived assaults from British and American aircraft before eventually deflating in the Arctic Ocean.
Canada’s new F-35 fighter jets, which will begin arriving in 2026, also have a reported service ceiling of above 50,000 feet.
WAS THE CHINESE BALLOON ALSO SPYING ON CANADA?
While the balloon flew above sensitive military sites in the U.S., it’s unclear if it did the same over Canadian military facilities, which could have included CFB Cold Lake and CFB Suffield in Alberta, and CFB Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan. To rapidly respond to incoming threats from the north, the Canadian military also maintains what are known as forward operating locations, or FOLs, in Yellowknife and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Although the balloon’s exact route has not been disclosed, Norad says it was tracked throughout its journey.
Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor in political science at Concordia University in Montreal whose research focuses on security and strategic studies
“Technically, there is no international law indicating the height of national sovereignty,” Spencer-Churchill told CTVNews.ca. “I don’t know if it overflew any of those bases. Even if it did, they could have more easily driven and up and into the base… bases in Canada are not under as serious a lock-down as U.S. facilities.”
China has denied that the balloon was collecting intelligence.
In his briefing with reporters on Monday, Norad’s commander disclosed that four other Chinese balloons dispatched during both the Biden and Trump presidencies initially went undetected.
“This comes down to Norad modernization and whether or not it’s capable to deal with the entire threat environment,” Bezan said. “Who would have thought a balloon flying around at 55, 60,000 feet – it was even at times above that – would become a potential threat to continental security?”
WAS CANADA’S RESPONSE ADEQUATE?
Bezan says the government has kept Canadians in the dark about the incident, who are relying instead on information from the U.S.
“I’m disappointed that the minister of defence, Anita Anand, and the prime minister have been both tight-lipped on this,” the opposition lawmaker told CTVNews.ca. “Why didn’t the Government of Canada tell Canadians what was in Canadian airspace, especially when Canadians could see it? Why did it wait until it was in Montana before this became public information?”
Charron from the University of Manitoba also wants to know more about how the incident was handled.
“I would want to know if any western parts made up the balloon and if allies or other U.S. combatant commands saw (the) balloon and either did or did not pass along info,” she said.
Spencer-Churchill from Concordia University believes that the Canadian response has been appropriate.
“(L)ikely there was deference given to the Pentagon, which would have referred the issue to the Secretary of Defense, who would likely have informed the U.S. Armed Services Committee,” he said. “Consequently, Canada’s response was perfect, given that it passed through domestic and alliance consultations.”
With files from the Canadian Press and the Associated Press
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