Up in the Air: The Spy Balloon and What It Means for Canada

The Chinese spy balloon saga that transfixed the United States, Canada, and much of the rest of the world during the first two weeks of February appears to have blown over. There are still unanswered questions surrounding the four balloons —or “high-altitude objects,” as they were officially labeled—shot down by U.S. fighter aircraft over North America, but the broad contours of the story seem apparent. However, if the immediate crisis is over, the danger is not. For Washington, it is yet another example of rising geopolitical tensions and the need for the West to stand together in the face of aggressive autocratic powers. For Ottawa, it is a stark reminder that Canada is not immune from the tensions of an increasingly bifurcated world.

No doubt remains that the first object, shot down by an F-22 aircraft off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, was a Chinese spy balloon. Debris recovered from the crash site indicates that it was carrying sophisticated surveillance equipment capable of gathering, inter alia, signals intelligence. News reports based on U.S. government sources suggest that its original mission was to spy on U.S. military bases in Hawaii and Guam, but that it drifted off course due to unusual wind patterns, passing over Alaska and western Canada before crisscrossing the continental United States. While this cross-country passage may have been an accident, and possibly conducted without full knowledge of some senior Chinese authorities, the balloon was still attempting to collect sensitive intelligence on U.S. military installations in the Pacific region, and once in the continental United States, seems to have flown over ballistic missile silos in Montana—which is not a likely coincidence. The United States has also claimed that this balloon was part of a larger Chinese fleet that has carried out intelligence activities in recent years in over 40 countries on five continents.  

The other three objects shot out of the sky by U.S. fighter aircraft over the weekend of February 10–12 appear to have been harmless, connected to research, commercial, or meteorological pursuits. Shot down, in order, over Alaska, the Yukon, and Lake Huron, they apparently did not possess any surveillance capabilities. Their true origins may never be known—recovering debris in all three cases has proven difficult—but nothing at this point suggests they were linked to hostile states. They were brought down out of an abundance of caution, in President Biden’s words, picked up by recalibrated radar looking for smaller, slower-moving objects, and supposedly posing a threat to civilian aircraft given their altitude.  

This entire episode sparked enormous debate in U.S. political circles. At a time when U.S.-China tensions—from Taiwan and the South China Sea to export controls on conductor chips and the war in Ukraine—have been rising with no end in sight, the spy balloon was immediately perceived as the latest in a series of Chinese provocations. It quickly became a political football, with Republicans pressing President Biden to take even stronger action against an assertive China. The cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China, the shootdown of the three other balloons, and the ensuing war of words between Washington and Beijing, should all be viewed in this context The crisis throws into relief the delicate nature of current U.S.-China relations and raises the specter of dangerous escalation in such instances. For the United States, whether an accident or not, the spy balloon provides further evidence that China is pursuing interests inimical to those of the West. Coming at a time when Russian aggression in Ukraine shows no signs of abating, and when the United States is suggesting that Beijing may be considering military assistance to Moscow, the world looks more divided than ever. Washington may have used the balloon episode to make a point. The United States will not hesitate to defend its interests in this evolving strategic environment, and expects its allies to stand with them, including its neighbor to the north.  

Where does this leave Canada? The Canadian role in the balloon affair was barely referenced in the international media. Two of the objects were brought down over the Yukon or close to Lake Huron— Canadian territory. Although U.S. fighter aircraft carried out these operations, they did so under the authority of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a binational military command reporting to both the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. president. Canada was therefore directly involved in the operational response and its rhetorical aftermath. But outside the immediate response, this incident should provide further evidence that the geostrategic landscape is shifting, and Canada needs to shift with it.

None of this should come as a surprise. As a member of NATO, Canada has not only been monitoring closely Russia’s renewed efforts to seize territory and restore its place among the great powers, but it has also been actively supporting Ukraine in defense of its sovereignty. Canada has been no less a witness to the re-emergence of China as a global superpower. The spy balloon is the latest symbol  for Canada of a more determined China on the world stage. Canada is a Pacific nation and has been watching China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy not only in its own region but further afield through pursuits like the Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s behavior has also hit closer to home. It has come in the form of hostage diplomacy (the kidnapping of the Two Michaels),  cyberattacks, foreign interference, disinformation, theft of intellectual property, attempted investments in strategic economic sectors like critical minerals, and, as was seen with the spy balloon, espionage. In the last two weeks alone, stories have been spread across the front pages of  newspapers concerning Chinese military research cooperation with Canadian universities in such areas as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum, as well as an alleged well-coordinated, strategic Chinese campaign to interfere in Canada’s democratic processes, including the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

In a transformed world, Canada is not an innocent bystander. It is a member of the G7, NATO, and the Five Eyes partnership. In the face of Russian and Chinese threats, Canada needs to protect its national interests and defend Western values in cooperation with allies. Canada’s continental partner to the south expects no less. The government has been responding, but its actions have been slow, modest, and piecemeal. Canada needs to do more in three broad areas.

At home, the government needs to lead a whole-of-Canada strategy to counter hostile state activities. Canada has made progress in some areas in recent years, including banning Huawei from 5G networks (the last to do so in the Five Eyes group), increasing offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, freezing federal funding for university research with the Chinese military, and putting in place stronger foreign investment controls. Yet this in no way represents a coherent and coordinated public strategy against hostile states that operate in sophisticated and diverse ways. Some initiatives, such as establishing a registry of foreign agents to combat foreign Interference, could be done with relative ease. Others, such as building up military capabilities and economic infrastructure in the Arctic, will take longer.  Canada should do more to protect against threats to its territorial sovereignty, democratic values and institutions, economy, and society.

In North America, Canada must enhance its cooperation with the United States in the joint defense of the continent. Canadians learned more about NORAD over the last two weeks than at any time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Many  expressed shock at the news of a U.S. F-22 aircraft shooting down an object over Canadian territory—the first such operation ever carried out by NORAD—but this was exactly how the binational command was intended to operate. Created in 1957, NORAD is the ultimate symbol of bilateral military partnership. While it performed admirably in the shootdowns over Yukon and Lake Huron, NORAD’s U.S. commander also admitted that “domain awareness gaps” prevented the spy balloon (and potentially others before) from being discovered in a timely fashion.

Those gaps pale in comparison to broader challenges. The North Warning System is woefully out of date, relying on technology from the 1970s and 1980s to defend against twenty-first century military threats, including advanced cruise and hypersonic missiles. Russia is building up its military infrastructure and capabilities in the Arctic, and it could accelerate those efforts in the wake of the war in Ukraine. China also has Arctic aspirations—Canadian media recently reported that Chinese monitoring buoys have been discovered in the region. Plans are underway to improve NORAD satellite coverage, unveil over-the-horizon radar, and deploy undersea sensors in the Arctic, but this will take time. The Canadian government announced in its last budget that it would invest nearly $5 billion in the NORAD upgrade, but no one knows if this is the entire bill, and how fast this critical project will proceed. It needs to be a priority. The United States is expecting Canada to pull its weight.

Finally, on the international stage, Canada needs to be prepared to respond to an increasingly volatile security environment that could, in a worst-case scenario, require the deployment of significant combat forces, whether in Europe or the Indo-Pacific.

With respect to Europe, in the short term, Canada has been steadily increasing its support to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. Since last year, it has provided over 5 billion CAD in direct assistance, including 1 billion CAD in military aid.  But the recent announcement that Canada was providing only four Leopard tanks to Ukraine (since increased to eight) suggests the cupboard may be almost bare, just when Kyiv is asking for more equipment to counter a looming Russian offensive and President Biden has declared that the West stands united with Ukraine. If the situation deteriorates further in eastern Europe, NATO may expect Canada to do far more. Will the Canadian Armed Forces have the personnel and modern equipment to rise to the challenge? The Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) has identified a shortfall of 10,000 personnel in the military ranks, while the timely delivery of modern combat systems is a perpetual problem (the first of 88 F-35s will not arrive until 2026). The CDS recently declared that “as the threats to the world security situation increase, as the threats at home increase, our readiness is going down within the Canadian Armed Forces. . . .The military we have today is not the one we need for the future." A long-awaited defense policy update may provide some clues as to the way ahead, but expectations are low.   

The Canadian government recently unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Canada finally fell in line with its allies by identifying China as a “disruptive global power” whose “interests and values . . . increasingly depart from ours.” But the defense and security measures contained in the strategy to address the China threat are modest—an extra ship deployed on multinational naval operations, greater participation in regional military exercises, and increased cyber capacity building in select countries. No mention is made of Canada working with allies or joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. As with Europe, one can only hope that the defense policy update provides some details on how Canada will respond should great power competition in the Indo-Pacific continue to intensify.

Some may dismiss the recent balloon episode as an errant spy endeavor of little significance and urge the United States and Canada to let the crisis float by and move on to more pressing issues. The two governments could do that. But it would not change the fact that irritants between the United States and China are quickly growing in number, reflecting the heightened geopolitical tensions spreading across the globe. Canada, as a member of the Western alliance, needs to adjust to the new security environment by strengthening its defense and security capabilities as part of a broader National Security Strategy to protect its interests and values. Canada has been slow to do this and it cannot wait much longer. Canadians expect it, and so do Canada’s allies.

Vincent Rigby is a non-resident senior adviser with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is also a visiting professor with the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.