Chinese spy balloon exposed weaknesses in North American airspace surveillance

Department of Defense photo

The Chinese spy balloon incident in early 2023 raised important concerns about the ability of the United States to detect airborne threats. 

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a bi-national organization in charge of defending the airspaces of the United States of America and Canada. Its commander, General Glen VanHerck revealed in an exclusive interview with NBC News on July 20, 2023, that the Chinese spy balloon incident prompted the development of new surveillance technology to strengthen the United States surveillance capabilities. 

“We were not looking for a high-altitude balloon at that time — 65,000 feet, very slow. Our radars are capable of seeing it, but we were filtering out that data,” VanHerck told NBC News. “We funded Over-the-horizon radar capabilities which allow [NORAD] to see further away. The question is what do you do with that data and information,” VanHerck continued. “We need to feed that into a globally integrated air and missile defense capability.” 

Over-the-horizon radars (OTH) are a type of radar system designed to detect and track objects at very long ranges, beyond the radar’s line of sight. Traditional radars rely on line-of-sight propagation, meaning they can only detect targets within their direct line of sight, limited by the curvature of the Earth and obstacles like mountains and buildings. However, over-the-horizon radars use a phenomenon called “skywave propagation” or “ionospheric reflection” to extend their detection range. 

The Chinese spy balloon incident 

On January 28, 2023, a balloon was detected flying at high altitude over the United States. After entering US airspace, the airship traversed to Canada before coming back to the US.

Eventually, an F-22 Raptor fighter jet fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon when it was flying over water off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, 2023. After investigating the debris, it was found to be a Chinese balloon carrying sensors capable of collecting signal intelligence. 

Sailors recovering the remains of the Chinese high-altitude balloon (U.S. Navy photo) 

China initially offered an apology, claiming that the object was a civilian weather balloon that had drifted off course. However, US officials confirmed that the balloon was indeed used for spying purposes. 

“We know for sure it was a spy vehicle,” VanHerck told NBC News. 

The US Department of Defense later revealed that multiple Chinese spy balloons had previously breached US airspace. 

“I will tell you that we did not detect those threats,” VanHerck said during a briefing on February 6, 2023. “And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out. But I don’t want to go in further detail.” 

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