Canada’s chief of the defence staff said Tuesday he wanted Canadian fighter jets to shoot down the unidentified object that flew over Yukon last month, but they were prevented from reaching the area first due to weather slowing their takeoff.
But Gen. Wayne Eyre told the House of Commons standing committee on national defence the operation that saw a U.S. military jet ultimately take the shot was “almost textbook” and reflected the importance of NORAD, the continental air defence network.
“I gave direction that it would be preferable for the Canadian CF-18s to do the shootdown, but whoever had the first best shot to ensure we had it,” he said.
That ended up being the U.S. after the closest CF-18 fleet, based at CFB Cold Lake northeast of Edmonton, was delayed from taking off, Eyre explained.
“I will say they were delayed in departing Cold Lake because of freezing rain. I understand that the airstrip was a bit of a skating rink, as happens in northern Alberta. So in all operations there is some friction.”
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The appearance of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon in Canadian and American airspace in early February led NORAD to scrutinize the skies over the Arctic, leading to the U.S. shooting down three more unidentified objects: one over Alaska on Feb. 10, a second over Yukon on Feb. 11 and a third over Lake Huron on Feb. 12.
Canadian aircraft were scrambled along with American jets and helped track and analyze the objects, Eyre and other top military leaders told the committee.
Committee members pressed the witnesses on whether the incidents suggested a lack of readiness by the Canadian military, or a lack of ability to meet NORAD contributions, which military officials dismissed.
Maj.-Gen. Darcy Molstad, the military’s deputy commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command who was acting commander at the time the unidentified objects were detected and shot down, repeated Canada’s military aircraft were “more than capable” to take them down. But he explained the “first, best shot” protocol was reflective of NORAD’s collaborative approach.
“That’s what we’re driving towards with our allies and our partners in a conflict situation,” he said. “We want the best sensor and the best shooter to be able to take action for best effect.”
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Eyre and Defence Minister Anita Anand, who also appeared Tuesday, confirmed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the decision to authorize the shoot down the Yukon object. The other two objects, as well as the Chinese balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, were brought down on the order of U.S. President Joe Biden.
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Anand said there is no indication the flying objects were affiliated with a foreign country, but would not speculate further on their origins or purpose as they have not been recovered.
Search operations for all three objects have been called off due to difficult weather conditions.
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U.S. intelligence agencies believe the three objects did not come from China or are tied to any other foreign surveillance operation, and are most likely “benign” private commercial or research balloons.
Whether those search operations will resume when the weather improves is up to the agencies responsible, Anand said. The RCMP was leading the Yukon search, she noted, which is overseen by the public safety ministry.
Eyre said Canadian Armed Forces members would likely be called upon to assist once again if the search resumes.
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Asked why Canadians were not informed sooner about the appearance of the Chinese spy balloon or the unidentified Yukon object, Eyre said it was important in the former case especially to analyze the balloon to determine what it was.
“We need to realize, this was the first time that we had encountered an incident like this,” he said.
Deputy Defence Minister Bill Matthews added that given the uncertainty, “you do not necessarily want your adversaries to know what you know.”
“Given that there was no (physical) threat, I would question the value of going public with information earlier,” he said.
Arctic security initiatives accelerated
Although the meeting was intended to focus on the Chinese balloon and other airborne objects specifically, the conversation also veered over to Canada’s security in the Arctic more broadly.
Anand and Eyre both said the incidents highlighted the importance of modernizing NORAD, to which the federal government has committed nearly $40 billion in investments over the next 20 years.
However, it remains unclear how much of that spending is actually new money.
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Among the first priorities is over-the-horizon radar systems, which will broaden NORAD’s surveillance capabilities further north and detect modern threats coming from other Arctic nations like Russia and China.
Matthews said the systems are being prioritized at an accelerated rate in collaboration with the U.S., but would not give a definitive timetable on when it would be ready.
Eyre said over-the-horizon radar would help address “gaps” in Arctic surveillance and detecting foreign threats.
“We have work to do,” he said.
NORAD is also reviewing its own protocols when it comes to detecting smaller airborne objects and looking at ways to strengthen and modernize communication-sharing between decision-makers, Anand said.
That will further help counter various kinds of threats from countries like China and Russia that are displaying “unacceptable aggression” in the Arctic and elsewhere, she added.
Eyre pointed out that NORAD was designed to protect North American airspace from fast-moving aircraft and other threats, which means the appearance of slow-moving objects like the Chinese balloon presents an opportunity to improve and broaden its priorities.
“This is new territory for NORAD,” he said.