When a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over Canada, why didn’t we shoot it down?


Amid all the suspicion and intrigue that’s been swirling around the Chinese spy balloon are questions related specifically to the time it was flying in Canadian airspace. 

The balloon was first sighted Jan. 28 as it flew over Alaska, according to U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, and it flew over the Yukon and B.C.’s Interior before returning to American airspace over Montana. 

Some Canadians — including opposition party members and CBC readers — have questioned why this country didn’t act sooner, why we didn’t shoot it down ourselves, and whether Canada’s military was even capable of doing so. 

Should Canada have acted when it flew into Canadian airspace? 

The short answer, according to military experts, is no. 

“To say that, oh, Canada should have shot this balloon down on its own — that’s just silly,” said University of Calgary history professor and military historian David Bercuson. 

“That just completely ignores the fact that NORAD exists that we’re part of it and have been part of it for almost 80 years now.”

The remnants of the balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it, on Feb. 4. (Submitted by Chad Fish/The Associated Press)

NORAD is the North American Aerospace Defense Command, responsible for aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning. 

Retired major general Scott Clancy, who at one point served as deputy commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region, says while each country has sovereignty over its airspaces, “the binational command of NORAD is both Canada and the United States. It’s not one or the other.”

He said any decision to act within Canadian airspace would be the purview of the Canadian government, and the NORAD agreement makes NORAD an executor of that decision making.

So in this case, Clancy says as soon as the balloon was identified over Alaska, Canada would have been informed by the commander of NORAD, who would inform “the hierarchies — political and military — of both governments in the United States and Canada simultaneously.” 

And the decision as to how to react, he said, would be a “balance between intelligence and operational security and public safety.”

NORAD commander U.S. Gen. Glen VanHerck said there was some action taken when the balloon was over Canada. 

“There was some speculation about a second one,” he told reporters during a briefing Monday. “I launched NORAD fighters, Canadian CF-18s, and we were not able to corroborate any additional balloon.”

Why was the balloon allowed to fly in North American airspace for as long as it did? 

Both Clancy, the retired NORAD deputy commander, and Bercuson say that once the balloon was deemed not to pose any tactical threat to people on the ground, it actually offered up an opportunity for Canadians and Americans to gather important information. 

“Just having the balloon move across the country was an opportunity to watch it and gather our own intelligence about how it was doing — and what it was doing,” Clancy said. 

NORAD commander VanHerck confirmed the move was strategic in the same Monday briefing.

“This gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed,” he said. 

VanHerck did not elaborate on what they were able to learn, but Clancy says it could have included insight into their uses of technology.

“It would be very interesting to know the kind of emission devices that were sending information back to China from this balloon,” Clancy said. “I think that’s going to be very indicative of some things.”

And, said Clancy, allowing the balloon to continue to drift helped keep China a bit in the dark. 

“In the early days, the predominant factor at play was trying to allow this to play out so that the Chinese did not know whether or not NORAD knew of — NORAD being the United States and Canada — knew of the presence of this balloon in Canadian and U.S. airspace,” he said.

Head shot of man wearing a button down shirt and dark sweater
Retired major general Scott Clancy once served as deputy commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region. He says the decision on whether to shoot down the balloon would have been a ‘balance between intelligence and operational security and public safety.’ (Trevor Godinho)

Bercuson agreed, saying China didn’t just want to make sure the North Americans saw the balloon — it wanted to know how they would react to seeing it. 

“They don’t just want to take pictures of missile fields in Montana, for example. They want to know how we’re responding. How good is our technology to respond to the existence of this balloon,” he said. 

Bercuson says as it has become clear that this was not the first such balloon China has deployed, the Chinese were likely saying to themselves, “well, that clearly they’re not picking this stuff up, so why not keep doing it until they do?”

A map of North America is shown, charting the balloon's trajectory.
A map shows the trajectory of the balloon over North America. The specific duration it was over Canadian airspace is not yet clear. (The Associated Press)

VanHerck did admit in his comments Monday that this was not the first time this kind of surveillance balloon had flown over North America and that such balloons evaded detection by North America’s aging early warning system in the past because of a “domain awareness gap” that has since been closed. 

While VanHerck didn’t elaborate on that “gap,” Clancy says it might have been that the radar systems poised to detect threats are set to ignore data that is below a certain airspeed. 

“When humans are looking at those screens it is impossible to pick out threats from all the rest of the data without some filters to screen out unwanted contacts,” he clarified in a later email, adding that NORAD may have closed the gap by adding enhanced data processing on top of the existing radar systems in order to pull out the data at these low airspeeds to recognize it as an actual contact.

WATCH | The decision was to wait to bring down the balloon until it was safe to do so:

‘I told them to shoot it down,’ Biden says about suspected Chinese spy balloon

U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday said he told the Pentagon on Wednesday to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as soon as possible. On Saturday, the balloon was downed over the Atlantic Ocean.

Was the plan always to shoot it down over water?

U.S. President Joe Biden said that he gave the order to shoot down the balloon on Feb. 1, and it was eventually shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. 

A big part of the decision of where to do it had to do with the sheer size of the balloon. 

VanHerck said the balloon was 200 feet tall — or about 60 metres — with a payload he characterized as “a jetliner type of size” weighing “in excess of a couple thousand pounds” or at least 900 kilograms.

The debris field was expected to be about 1,500 metres by 1,500 metres. 

But Clancy said, had the balloon posed an imminent threat, assessments about bringing it down sooner over land would have been made. 

Would Canada’s fighter jets have had the capability to shoot the balloon down?

The operating altitude of Canada’s CF-18 Hornet fighter jets is 50,000 feet (15,000 metres), while Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the balloon had been flying at about 60,000 feet (18,000 metres) — potentially out of range for those jets.

Some CBC readers have raised concerns that Canada wouldn’t have been able to take action against it had the balloon been a threat. 

Not an issue, according to Bercuson. He says one of the main points of NORAD is that Canadian and U.S. military aircraft need not seek permission every time they need to fly over each other’s territory. 

“So once the decision was made that this thing would be shot down,” he said, “if we didn’t have the capability of doing it, the Americans would do it.”

Head shot of a man with glasses
University of Calgary history professor David Bercuson says to suggest Canada should have shot down the balloon itself — or even question whether it could have — ignores Canada’s involvement in NORAD. (Submitted by David Bercuson)

What does this incident say about our overall security? 

Opposition parties also wanted to know why Canadians didn’t even find out about the balloon until it had already left Canadian airspace and what’s now being done to prevent and punish Chinese espionage efforts.

“It is high time the government took action to counter Chinese influence and modernize Canada’s defence systems,” Bloc Québécois defence critic Christine Normandin said in a statement in French.

National Defence Department spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said the decision about when to tell Canadians was a joint one.

“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,” she said in an email.

“Through this collaboration, Canada and the U.S. jointly decided to publicize the presence of the balloon at an appropriate time, taking into account operational security.”

Close up shot of a small boat with about 8 people on board, pulling a large white item out of the water.
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover the balloon Feb. 5 from the waters off South Carolina. (U.S. Fleet Forces/U.S. Navy/Reuters)

As for modernizing NORAD, historian Bercuson couldn’t agree more. “Of course we have to upgrade NORAD,” he said, “we’ve known it for a long time.” But he says governments have been reluctant to do so. 

“So now we’re going to have to because we know that the Chinese have been doing this, have clearly gotten away with it,” he said. 

“So, okay, do we want them patrolling our skies, taking pictures, listening to our signals or tapping into our conversations? Well, I would think we wouldn’t want them to know that.”

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