After receiving a classified briefing from the Pentagon on the unidentified aerial objects recently shot down by the US military, members of US Congress say the mysterious craft are likely not a new phenomenon.
Select lawmakers received a closed-door classified briefing on the situation by the Department of Defense (DoD) on 15 February. Speaking at the US Capitol building in Washington DC afterwards, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said there appears to be nothing new about the recent objects, when compared to hundreds of earlier reports catalogued by US intelligence agencies in recent years.
“Observing unidentified objects over US airspace, particularly over sensitive areas of the country is not new,” says Rubio, who serves as vice-chair of the select committee on intelligence matters.
“What we heard in there,” Rubio says of the classified briefing, “sounds just like the stories we’ve heard repeatedly.”
The Florida Republican was an early supporter of the US government’s effort to catalogue and investigate reports of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). In 2021, he called for the government and the American public to treat the matter as a legitimate national security concern.
“I want us to take it seriously and have a process to take it seriously,” Rubio said on the CBS News television programme 60 Minutes.
Since then, the DoD created a new office to investigate UAP – the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO). That team contributed to a January report by top US intelligence officer, which catalogued 247 new UAP sightings since March 2021.
Military aviators reported the vast majority of the sightings.
Until recently, UAP incidents prompted minimal action by the Pentagon. However, following the 2 February incursion into US airspace by a large Chinese surveillance balloon – and substantial criticism of the Biden Administration’s response from Congress – the Pentagon adjusted the sensitivity settings on its network of radars monitoring the skies over North America.
Senior officials, including the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) say this is likely why there has been an uptick in UAP detections.
However, the response to such events has also been far more forceful than ever before. US fighter aircraft shot down three unidentified objects betwen 10 and 12 February; one off the coast of Alaska, a second over the Yukon Territory and a third over Lake Huron.
Those “kills”, along with the 4 February downing of the Chinese surveillance balloon off South Carolina, mark the first time in the 65-year history of NORAD the command has taken down a flying object in anger over North America.
According to Rubio, even in the protection of a secure briefing room, DoD officials still could not identify what they destroyed in the three latest incidents.
“They don’t know whose it is, they don’t even know what it is,” he says. “They can’t even tell you what it looks like.”
The White House on 14 February seemed to suggest there might be a non-military explanation for the incidents.
“One thing we have to consider… is that these could be balloons tied to commercial or research entities and therefore totally benign,” says John Kirby with the president’s National Security Council, noting that possibility is being explored.
Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, speaking to Fox News on 15 February, said the public may never get a firm answer to the question.
“We’re not going to know much about the three that occurred after the Chinese balloon because they’re in very difficult places to retrieve,” he notes. However, Tillis says the Pentagon is learning a great deal about Beijing’s espionage airship, which was brought down in an area much more suitable for recovery.
Rubio says the Pentagon owes the public a better explanation of the situation surrounding the three unknown craft and believes it can be done without compromising security secrets.
“95% of what was discussed in that room today can be made public,” the senator says of the classified briefing.
During an open hearing by a separate senate committee on 9 February, senior defence officials repeatedly declined to answer lawmakers’ questions on decision making surrounding the shoot down of the Chinese spy balloon, citing issues with discussing classified information in public.
That hearing took place before the three unknown objects were observed and subsequently destroyed. Washington has thus far refrained from connecting those incidents to Beijing.
What is known, according to Rubio, is the recent UAPs were not offensive weapons – a belief shared by defence officials. However, he agrees with the Pentagon’s assessment that the objects, which the DoD describes as being roughly the size of small car, did pose a hazard to civil aviation.
A recurring theme in the discussion of UAP has been speculation that some of the observed craft could have extraterrestrial origins. In its January report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence noted an unspecified number of the objects “demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities”.
The report also notes 53% of the UAPs witnessed were ultimately found to be normal aerospace material, including several balloons and unmanned air vehicles.
Rubio downplayed the likelihood of an otherworldly explanation, saying the far bigger concern is whether a foreign antagonist has gained an advantage over US air defences.
“This is about whether an adversary has developed a capability that they know we’re not looking for… because our systems are set up to see missiles and airplanes,” Rubio notes.
“They’re not set up to see smaller objects at lower altitudes,” he adds.
The DoD has since confirmed this issue. Using data collected during the flyover of the Chinese balloon, including surveillance by high-altitude Lockheed Martin U-2 spy planes, both the DoD and White House now say there have been at least four previous transits of similar systems since 2017.
NORAD commander General Glen VanHerck says the military failed to identify those incursions at the time they occurred.
“I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,” VanHerck said on 6 February. “That’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.”
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who also attended the 15 February classified briefing, concurs with the assessment that the three unknown objects shot down in February are part of a long-standing issue detecting small and atypical objects.
“This has been going on for a long, long, long time,” Kennedy says. “At least since 2017.”
Although NORAD appears to be having more success detecting and tracking these small craft, VanHerck notes their limited radar cross section and slow speed still pose a major challenge for pilots interdicting the objects. Downing them required the use of heat-seeking Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles because of the difficulty securing a radar lock, he says.
Rubio says the US military’s struggle to respond to airspace violations by small UAP should be a concern for the national security establishment.
“If someone’s invented a capability that we can’t monitor, that sounds like a big problem,” Rubio says.