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How China’s balloon sent the US on a hunt for flying objects

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How China's balloon sent the US on a hunt for flying objects

After the U.S. government announced last week that a fleet of Chinese spy balloons had visited the United States undetected in recent years, the military had to admit the obvious: it had an “awareness gap.”

So the U.S. military has been adjusting its radar to find flying objects – including balloons – that are smaller, slower and differently shaped than the enemy aircraft and missiles that have long preoccupied the Pentagon.

The result has been a spate of unprecedented shootdowns of mysterious objects – including on Sunday an octagonal structure downed by an F-16 over Lake Huron – raising still-unanswered questions about whether these phenomena are new or if they’ve been around all along.

U.S. officials acknowledge they are hard to find, even for the world’s most sophisticated military.

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“What makes them really hard to detect and track is their size and potentially the shape,” said Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), describing them as “very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section.”

The suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States earlier this month led politicians to criticize the .S. military and U.S. President Joe Biden for not shooting it down when it first entered U.S. airspace.

The Pentagon said there had been four previous Chinese spy balloon flights over the United States in recent years.

RADAR ADJUSTMENTS

U.S. officials told Reuters that NORAD has been adjusting the filters and algorithms it uses to examine radar data, making them sensitive enough to detect these kinds of objects – ones whose ability to stay aloft, moving with the wind, is confounding U.S. officials.

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Officials say a key change was to NORAD’s filters to allow them to detect objects moving slowly and at different altitudes, without specifying which ones.

“We have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar,” said Melissa Dalton, an assistant secretary of defense.

Following identification, the question is how to determine which hits on the radar are merely noise and which are possible threats worth scrambling U.S. military pilots to chase after.

So far the result has been a series of visual confirmations and shootdowns – three over the past three days – and accompanying closures of American and Canadian airspace to avoid collisions between military and civilian aircraft.

“We’re definitely looking harder now,” said a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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On Friday, a U.S. F-22 fighter jet shot down an unidentified object about the size of a small car near Deadhorse, Alaska.

And on Saturday, another F-22 brought down an object described by Canada as similar in shape to but significantly smaller than the Chinese spy balloon hit by a U.S. missile on Feb. 4 off South Carolina’s coast.

The latest object to get shot down on Sunday likely floated from Montana over to Lake Huron, where an F-16 brought it down with a Sidewinder missile, the same weapon used against the Chinese balloon and the unidentified objects. Each Sidewinder costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

VanHerck said the military considered shooting guns at the objects, but this was deemed too difficult given the small targets. Using guns would also be more dangerous for the pilot, since debris can more easily hit an aircraft firing at close range than one launching a missile from a distance.

NO PRECENDENT

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The U.S. military said the object shot down on Sunday appeared to have traveled near U.S. military sites and was a surveillance risk as well as a threat to civilian aviation.

“Our team will now work to recover the object in an effort to learn more,” the Pentagon said.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a former C.I.A. officer, said on Twitter he could think of no precedent for the flurry of incidents.

“Nowhere on the ‘Risk to US interests’ bingo card is what has occurred over the last week,” Polymeropoulos wrote, calling for transparency from the U.S. intelligence community.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the U.S. public deserved better answers about the objects than they have now.

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“We need to understand the nature of the threat to our national security,” Bennet said.

Whether this is the start of regular shootdowns of unidentified objects over American skies is still unclear.

VanHerck said the military would come after any unknown object that posed a threat to North America.

“If it is a threat. I’ll shoot it down,” he said. 

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

 The African National Congress and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance, agreed on Friday to work together in South Africa’s new government of national unity, a step change after 30 years of ANC majority rule.

Once unthinkable, the deal between two sharply antagonistic parties is the most momentous political shift in South Africa since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid.

“Today, South Africa is a better country than it was yesterday. For the first time since 1994, we’ve embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a new government that will be different from the previous one,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in a televised address.

“From today, the DA will co-govern the Republic of South Africa in a spirit of unity and collaboration,” he said, adding that multi-party government was the “new normal”.

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The ANC lost its majority for the first time in an election on May 29 and has spent two weeks locked in intensive behind-the-scenes talks with other parties, which came down to the wire on Friday morning as the new parliament was convening.

The DA’s entry into national government is a big moment for a country still processing the legacy of the racist colonial and apartheid regimes. The party has struggled to shake off its image as a defender of rich white people and convince a broad spectrum of South Africans that it reflects their aspirations.

Two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance, will also take part in the unity government, they said. 

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Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

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Hamas' armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing al-Qassam Brigades said on Friday that two Israeli hostages held in Gaza were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Rafah a few days ago.

The group, in a video posted on its Telegram channel, did not release the names of those said to have been killed or provide any evidence.

The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins,” the al-Qassam Brigades statement said.

Israel rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a hostage-freeing operation in central Gaza’s al-Nuseirat on June 8. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 250 Palestinians were killed in the raid.

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The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. 

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

A Canadian navy patrol ship sailed into Havana early on Friday, just hours after the United States announced a fast-attack submarine had docked at its Guantanamo naval base on Cuba, both vessels on the heels of Russian warships that arrived on the island earlier this week.

The confluence of Russian, Canadian and U.S. vessels in Cuba – a Communist-ruled island nation just 160 km (100 miles) from Florida – served up a reminder of old Cold War tensions and of current fraught ties between Russia and Western nations over the Ukraine war.

However, both the U.S. and Cuba have said the Russian warships pose no threat to the region. Russia has also characterized the arrival of its warships in allied Cuba as routine.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, half submerged with its crew on deck, sailed into Havana harbor on Wednesday after conducting “high-precision missile weapons” training in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Canada`s Margaret Brooke patrol vessel began maneuvers early on Friday to enter Havana harbor, part of what the Canadian Joint Operations Command called “a port visit…in recognition of the long-standing bilateral relationship between Canada and Cuba.”

A Canadian diplomat characterized the Margaret Brooke`s arrival as “routine and part of long-standing cooperation between our two countries”, adding it was “unrelated to the presence of the Russian ships.”

Russia and Cuba were close allies under the former Soviet Union and tensions with Washington over Communism in its “backyard” peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moscow, which has maintained ties with Havana, has questioned the apparent nervousness of the West over the warships this week. 

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