February 17, 2023 By Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Senior Canadian military officers at the North American Aerospace Defence Command say a suspected Chinese spy balloon passed near several military bases and through “radar gaps” during its flight over Canada.
Canadian and American officials won’t know exactly what the balloon was capable of — and what information it captured — until it is analyzed.
But Maj.-Gen. Paul Prevost of the Canadian Armed Forces strategic joint staff said it did not pass over particularly sensitive sites in Canada.
“It came down pretty much from Alaska down into Yukon and into central B.C.,” Prevost said.
“So pretty much between the border of Alberta and the coast. There was no Canadian Forces infrastructure of significance along its path.
Prevost made the comments before the House of Commons defence committee on Friday while appearing alongside the deputy commander of Norad, Lt.-Gen. Alain Pelletier.
It was the first opportunity parliamentarians have had to question senior military officers about the Chinese balloon and three other objects that have been shot from the skies over North America since Feb. 4.
That includes one shot down over central Yukon last Saturday, which Pelletier described as a “suspected balloon,” and another taken down over Lake Huron on Sunday.
Searches for those two objects as well as a third shot down off the coast of Alaska on Feb. 10 were launched, with the RCMP, Canadian military and Canadian Coast Guard all tapped to help. The search in Lake Huron has since been suspended.
Pelletier confirmed that the Chinese balloon, which was first detected entering Alaskan airspace on Jan. 28, travelled through Canada on Jan. 30 and 31 before re-entering the U.S., where its presence was publicly revealed.
“Norad monitored the flight path of the balloon for most of its flight path over Canada,” he said.
He added there were “some radar gaps throughout some of its flight path. The high-altitude surveillance balloon of (the People’s Republic of China) came in proximity to some of the Canadian bases, but I cannot speak of the actual response of those Canadian bases.”
Canada has several military bases in Alberta and B.C., including one of its main fighter jet wings in Cold Lake, Alta. However, Prevost downplayed any security breach, saying: “There was no Canadian Forces infrastructure of significance along its path.”
Pelletier said the Canadian and American militaries are nonetheless keen to find out more about the balloon’s capabilities, including not only its ability to gather information but whether it could be used for other purposes.
The two senior Canadian military officers were also grilled about the other three objects taken down after the Chinese balloon, and whether Canada’s aging CF-18s were capable of destroying them.
U.S. President Joe Biden suggested on Thursday the three objects shot down over Alaska, Yukon and Lake Huron did not pose a threat to national security.
Pelletier and Prevost did not offer much in the way of additional details, and instead emphasized the importance of finding those objects to determine what they were. At the same time, they appeared to concede that those searches will come up empty.
The RCMP announced Thursday that it was suspending its search in Lake Huron, blaming deteriorating weather conditions and a low probability of success. Meanwhile, Prevost described the search in Yukon as trying to find “a needle in a snow bank.”
“The one in Yukon specifically landed in mountainous terrain with about a metre to a metre and a half of snow,” he said. “Picture an object falling from 20,000 feet into that snow.”
However, Prevost said whatever they were, “what we know is those objects were unauthorized and unwanted.”
Prevost also told committee members that an American F-22 destroyed the suspected balloon over Yukon instead of a Canadian CF-18 because of timing, saying two Canadian jets scrambled to the area were about five minutes away when the shot was taken.
“The F-18s had been scrambled,” he said. “The F-18s had a good chance of taking an engagement there. But we liked to go with the first opportunity, which was the F-22 just as it crossed the border.”
Some have questioned whether Canada’s aging fighter jets had the capability to destroy a small, slow-moving balloon at high altitude, particularly as their combat sensors and weapons are outdated and have yet to be upgraded.
Prevost said the CF-18s were carrying an older version of the type of missile that the F-22 used to destroy the balloon over Yukon, and that tests would have been conducted before a shot was taken.
“The F-18, we thought on that object, would have been able to attempt it,” he said. “It was going to be the first attempt from an F-18. And before taking that shot, there’s a few tests we would have been able to see if we had a good shot on it.”