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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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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

The US Coast Guard and Kiribati police boarded two Chinese fishing boats during a patrol against illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands nation’s vast exclusive economic zone this month but found no issues aboard, a coast guard official said.

The United States is seeking a bigger role for its coast guard in helping remote Pacific Islands nations monitor millions of kilometres of ocean – a rich tuna fishing ground – a move that also boosts surveillance as a rivalry with China over security ties in the region intensifies.

Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese police are working in Kiribati, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls a 3.5 million square kilometre (1.35 million square mile) exclusive economic zone. It is also host to a Japanese satellite tracking station.

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Washington has flagged plans to build an embassy in Kiribati to compete with China, but has not yet done so.

Kiribati police officers were on patrol with the US Coast Guard as “ship riders” for the first time in almost a decade, between Feb. 11-16, a US Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman said.

“The two People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged fishing vessels were boarded as part of routine maritime law enforcement activities to ensure compliance with regulations within the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed comments.

No concerns were reported during the boardings, she said.

“Both Kiribati officers from the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit and US Coast Guard officers were involved in the boarding operations. This collaboration underscores the partnership between the two nations in upholding maritime law and good governance,” she added.

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The Kiribati president’s office and Chinese embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner, Eeri Aritiera, told Reuters last week that Chinese police on the island work with local police.

China built a large embassy on the main island, Tarawa, after Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. 

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Russia launched 14 attack drones and a barrage of missiles at Ukraine overnight, with air defence systems destroying nine drones as well as three guided missiles over the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Ukraine’s air force said on Monday.

Russia also launched two S-300 missiles from anti-aircraft missile systems and one air-to-surface Kh-31P missile, the air force said on the Telegram messaging app.

It was not clear what happened to the missiles and drones that were not downed. 

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

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Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

“Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu,” Tuvalu’s government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

“It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

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Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan’s and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu’s finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

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Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

“Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union,” he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu’s ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

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