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Airborne incursions offer clear evidence that Norad needs an upgrade: U.S. expert

Analyst says recent flurry of overhead encounters represent a lack of capability, attention
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In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, Feb. 4, 2023. Canada and the United States are eyeing the sky with suspicion these days — as well as the shared continental defence system that’s supposed to be watching it for them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chad Fish via AP, File

Canada and the United States are eyeing the sky with suspicion these days — as well as the shared continental defence system that’s supposed to be watching it for them.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, appeared to lose track of the mysterious object that was eventually shot down Sunday over Lake Huron.

Jamil Jaffer, executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University in Virginia, says that’s just one example of why Norad needs an overhaul.

Jaffer says it’s unclear if the challenges posed by the recent flurry of overhead encounters represent a lack of capability, a lack of attention or a combination of both.

Three separate objects were blown out of the sky in as many days after what U.S. officials say was a Chinese surveillance balloon floated across the continent two weeks ago.

U.S. and Canadian recovery teams are battling difficult conditions to retrieve the debris from three locations: the frozen Arctic Ocean, a remote stretch of Yukon and the depths of the Great Lakes.

Military officials believe that the object downed over Lake Huron was first detected Saturday above southern Alberta before radar operators lost contact somewhere over Montana.

“That alone, I think, bespeaks something of a collection, ingestion or analytic gap — or all three,” Jaffer said in an interview.

“As a result, Norad modernization has to be in play, as do the overall collection and identification capabilities of the collective U.S. and Canadian defences.”

Canada and the U.S. have been talking publicly about — and working privately on — upgrading Norad, which military commanders and lawmakers on both sides of the border have long acknowledged is a badly outdated system.

It was top of mind Friday in D.C., when Defence Minister Anita Anand and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met in person at the Pentagon — the same day U.S. fighter jets engaged a flying object off the north Alaska coast.

But neither Austin nor Anand have said much publicly about how those efforts are going, when they might be complete or whether a more modern Norad would be better equipped to detect unmanned, slow-moving, high-altitude interlopers.

The object shot down over Yukon appeared to be a “small, metallic balloon” with a tethered payload that ventured near “sensitive sites” in the U.S., CNN reported Monday based on a Pentagon memo sent to members of Congress.

That same memo said the Lake Huron object “slowly descended” into the water after it was shot down, the report said.

All of the evidence points to a new challenge that neither the U.S. nor Canada is adequately equipped to confront, Jaffer said.

“There’s almost no question in my mind that we’re going to need to develop new capabilities — and whether those capabilities are to deal with an old threat or a less modern threat or a more modern threat, it’s hard to know,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that we need to really do a retrospective and figure out what’s going on here. But our systems aren’t oriented — at least it appears — towards balloons, and potentially drones or whatever these other vehicles are.”

A Canadian Coast Guard vessel was dispatched Monday to assist in the Lake Huron search, along with a drone team and RCMP investigators. Canadian Armed Forces personnel are also engaged in the search in Yukon, where weather conditions and difficult terrain are posing challenges.

The Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed a CC-130H Hercules, two CC-138 Twin Otters, a CH-148 Cyclone, and a CH-149 Cormorant aircraft to support efforts to recover the debris over what officials described as a 3,000-square-kilometre area.

“It is unfortunately very rugged and mountainous terrain,” said Sean McGillis, executive director of federal policing strategic management at the RCMP, which is leading the two searches.

“The weather conditions are not great…. There’s a very high level of snowpack in the region. So, our efforts are going to be difficult, they will be challenging, they will take us some time.”

Norad commander U.S. Gen. Glen VanHerck confirmed late Sunday that part of the escalation for all of the sudden sightings is that Norad — a system originally designed to spot foreign aircraft and missiles — has recalibrated to better detect smaller, slower-moving objects.

“If you have radars on all the time that were looking at anything from zero speed up to, say, (160 kilometres per hour), you would see a lot more information,” VanHerck said.

“So, with some adjustments we’ve been able to get a better a categorization of radar tracks now. And that’s why I think you’re seeing these overall.”

—The Canadian Press

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