NORAD Speaks

Canadian defense officials just recently released the route taken by a purported Chinese spy balloon traversing their airspace earlier this month. As reported in Global News, Maj. Gen. Paul Prévost, director of staff with Strategic Joint Staff,  told MPs sitting on the House of Commons National Defence committee, “It came down pretty much from Alaska down into Yukon and into central BC, so pretty much between the border of Alberta and the coast.”

Pelletier talks about the difficulties that balloons are providing to NORAD. Screenshot from Global News

Lieutenant General Alain Pelletier, Deputy Commander of NORAD, was recently interviewed by Global News and reported the following:

“The detection, tracking and monitoring of these objects have highlighted some challenges for NORAD. Some of these objects have been small in size, and slow in speed with low radar cross-sections.  This makes them difficult to be detected and tracked on radar, challenging to locate with airborne assets and difficult to categorize. While these objects may not have showcased hostile acts or hostile intent, the aircraft’s proximity to aviation routes, populated areas, and sensitive defense infrastructure have raised concerns.

As we’ve seen during recent events, the threat to North America has rapidly evolved from a northern approach long-range aviation to a 360° threat for all domains. I believe this is the first time in the history of NORAD that Canada or the US have actually taken kinetic actions against an airborne object in Canadian and American airspace. And it is important that we maintain the necessary capabilities to continue to do so.

I can tell you that we, NORAD, monitored the flight path of the balloon for most of its flight path over Canada as we experienced, as has been discussed in the media, some radar gaps throughout some of its flight path. And as far as the actual oversight location…the high-altitude surveillance balloon from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) came in proximity to some of the Canadian bases, but I cannot speak of the actual responses of those Canadian bases.”

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade

Ever heard of those guys? Me either. They are a hobbyist group of small balloon enthusiasts based just north of Chicago. And it just so happens that one of their high altitude “pico” balloons, the kind of mylar balloon you might see at a kid’s birthday party, has gone missing. The official designation of that missing Bottlecap Balloon is K9YO-15.

Think back a week and a half to February 10th when the US began tracking a “high altitude airborne object” over US airspace in Alaska. Without delay, two F-22 Raptor fighter jets were scrambled to track the “object of unknown origin.” The balloon drifted, with total disregard to Customs, across the international border with Canada, at which point the Royal Canadian Air Force joined the fray. Before long, world leaders were on a conference call discussing its fate.

President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Trudeau, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was on the line with Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand. What was the result of those calls? The use of force was authorized to bring “it” (whatever “it” was) down. On February 11th, a US F-22 used a $400,000 AIM-9 Sidewinder Missile to bring it down. Your tax dollars at work.

Telemetry from amateur radio high-altitude balloon launches can be found here. Screenshot from SondeHub-Amateur

They say you can find just about anything on the internet, and I tend to agree. I took the screenshot shown above at about 11:40 AM EST on 2/21/23. Yes, those are balloons over and near US and Canadian airspace, as tracked in real-time. You can find the link to the site and track stuff yourself by looking in the caption for the image.

Amateur balloonists use the site to track their craft, and guess what? The amateur balloon, whose radio callsign was K9YO-15 went missing on February 11th. Coincidence? You tell me. I’m no expert. But NPR did consult an expert on the subject. They spoke with Dan Bowden, a stratospheric balloon consultant with 12 years of experience researching and designing hobby balloons like the one sent aloft by the Illinois club.

The tracking site shown above also provides information on the likely path of a balloon. Here is what Mr. Bowden had to say when he noticed that K9YO-15 was predicted to leave Alaskan airspace and begin drifting over the Yukon. He said,

“We really hoped it wouldn’t be intercepted. But we knew the moment that the intercept was reported, whose it was and which one it was.”

NPR asked Bowden if he believed the government had shot down the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade’s balloon. He was quick to reply, “Yes. Absolutely. You know, I would say with 98% certainty.” The folks at NORAD are not laughing at this assertion. Last Friday, they told NPR that they understood that the FBI had spoken with representatives from the Chicago area hobby group.

Also, last Friday, Canadian officials called off the search for the wreckage of the craft that was shot down because the “high probability area” had been searched with no success. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police ended the search  “Given the snowfall that has occurred, the decreasing probability the object will be found and the current belief the object is not tied to a scenario that justifies extraordinary search efforts.”

Club organizer Cary Willis now considers their craft, which had previously circled the Earth at least six times, to be missing in action. When asked for a cost estimate for a balloon like K9YO-15, Mr. Bowden replied, “I don’t think you’d break $100.”