DOD takes steps to ensure its weather balloons aren’t misidentified
The Defense Department is in the midst of launching a new set of weather balloons and it’s taking steps to make them easier to identify — which may help them avoid ending up on the wrong side of a Sidewinder missile.
The launches are continuing in the wake of several recent shoot downs of unidentified “objects” flying over North America by U.S. fighter jets launching AIM-9X air-to-air missiles. Those incidents occurred just after a suspected Chinese spy balloon traversed much of the United States over several days before eventually being downed off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
About a week ago, the official Facebook page of Eglin Air Force Base announced that the 96th Operations Group planned to release red weather balloons in the Feb. 11-20 time frame from Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.
“Each day balloons will be released … to collect weather data for a Naval Post Graduate School research project to understand the physical interaction between the lower atmosphere and the upper ocean,” per the post.
Defense officials are taking steps to make them more easily identifiable.
“The balloons are red to ensure they are visible and easy to spot. We also notified the public to ensure they were aware they might see balloons in the sky from Feb. 11 to 20 for a Naval post-graduate school research project to ensure they knew the balloons were not connected to current events … The local FAA has been notified about the flight plans,” an Air Force spokesperson at Eglin told DefenseScoop in an email Friday.
The plan is to send up at least two per day, but additional launches may be added “depending on the weather conditions, science requirements, and airspace availability,” the spokesperson noted.
The platforms are small — just three feet in diameter — but “may expand as they ascend.”
North American Aerospace Defense Command recently changed its radar filters to better detect small and slow-moving systems, which may have contributed to the recent detections and downings of the unidentified objects, NORAD and other officials suggested.
The altitude of the red balloons that are being launched from Florida will vary because they’ll float with the wind, according to the Air Force spokesperson at Eglin.
“In general, we expect them to travel 40 – 60 km down-wind, but they can go higher and further. They may change directions at different levels because of the direction change in the wind,” the spokesperson said.
DefenseScoop is still trying to learn whether the balloons are equipped with electronic transponders to aid with their identification.
Meanwhile, the three unidentified “objects” that were shot down off the coast of Alaska, over Canada’s Yukon and over Lake Heron, Michigan in the Feb. 10-12 time frame, may have been weather balloons, according to U.S. officials.
Officials said the decision was made to down the objects due to concerns about the potential risks they posed to commercial air traffic — and the possibility that they might have been surveilling sensitive military facilities could not be ruled out.
However, “the intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation, or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” President Biden said Thursday during remarks at the White House.
“We know that a range of entities, including countries, companies, and research organizations operate objects at altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious, including legitimate scientific research,” he added.
John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council, said the objects that were recently shot down are not believed to have been owned by the U.S. military or other federal agencies.
“In checking with the FAA, they do not appear to have been operated by the U.S. government, so [we’re] pretty comfortable in ruling out that they were U.S. government objects,” he said during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Biden has directed his national security team to recommend “sharper rules” for dealing with UFOs in the future.
The administration aims to distinguish between platforms that are likely to pose safety and security risks that “necessitate action” — such as downing them — and those that are benign.
Biden outlined several moves that will be taken which could lead to changes in how airborne objects are identified and dealt with. They include establishing a better inventory of unmanned objects flying in U.S. airspace and making sure it’s accessible and up to date; implementing further measures to improve the federal government’s capacity to detect uncrewed platforms; updating the rules and regulations for launching and maintaining unmanned objects in the skies above the United States; and leading a diplomatic push to establish “common global norms in this largely unregulated space.”
“These steps will lead to safer and more secure skies for our air travelers, our military, our scientists, and for people on the ground as well,” Biden said.
“But make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down. I’ll be sharing with Congress these classified policy parameters when they’re completed, and they’ll remain classified so we don’t give our roadmap to our enemies to try to evade our defenses,” he noted.
Meanwhile, recovery operations for China’s suspected spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, have wrapped up. The U.S. Navy used underwater drones to help locate the debris.
“U.S. Navy assets assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully located and retrieved debris from the high-altitude [People’s Republic of China] surveillance balloon shot down Feb. 4, 2023. Final pieces of debris are being transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Virginia for counterintelligence exploitation, as has occurred with the previous surface and subsurface debris recovered. U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard vessels have departed the area. Air and maritime safety perimeters have been lifted,” Northcom said in a statement Friday.