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A U.S. Air Force pilot looked down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovered over the Central Continental United States February 3, 2023. Recovery efforts began shortly after the balloon was downed. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Over the weekend, during our USC SHIELD presentation by Maj Gen Nicholas “Stalker” Gentile (Deputy Director, NORAD J3), US fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a small high-altitude balloon flying over Utah, re-sparking concerns and raising questions about the vulnerability of the American homeland. The interception, conducted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), comes at a time of heightened vigilance amidst escalating tensions with foreign adversaries with global intent to change the world order. NORAD stated the balloon, flying between 43,000–45,000 feet, was deemed non-threatening after investigation. However, its origin and purpose remain unanswered. Reports suggest the balloon, constructed of Mylar, was carrying a small cube of unknown contents, further fueling speculation about its intentions. Moreover, similar balloons spotted over Hawaii, Guam, and Taiwan in preceding years have underscored China’s disregard for other nation’s sovereignty.

This incident exposes the challenges facing North America in the realm of Near Space Domain Awareness and draws eerie parallels to a previous encounter involving a Chinese surveillance balloon, which the U.S. military shot down over a year ago. To prepare leaders to excel in the realm of Near Space Domain Awareness MDAA, in collaboration with the University of Arizona, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in October of 2023 to establish Arizona Near Space Studies Institute (ANSI) and the AETOS (Air Engineering To Space) Executive Leadership Program. The universities existing assets will be used for advancing education and R&D in the Mechanical/Aerospace Research Lab, with two of the best hypersonic wind tunnels in the US, and Applied Research Building, with a Deep Space Environment Vacuum Chamber, advanced material 3D printers, a Balloon Mission Integration Lab, and over $35 million invested in the Operational Imaging Research Lab. AETOS is an 8-month program designed to educate aspiring Technical leaders from Canada, Mexico, and the United States military, government, and innovation technological communities about the Near Space Domain to collectively make North America safer.

Major General Nicholas A. Gentile Jr., the Deputy Director of NORAD J3, and (Retired) Lieutenant General L. Neil Thurgood, former Director of Army Hypersonics, Space, Directed Energy and Rapid Acquisition, offered insights during a USC SHIELD Executive Program online lecture Friday, February 23, 2024. The USC SHIELD program completed its second year, partnered among the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. The cohort of SHIELD 23’ had one of the team’s capstone papers focus on dirigible platforms into service that would aid in detecting threats from high up in the atmosphere, to those skimming the surface. This exact type of platform that our previous USC SHIELD cohort championed is the exact capability the United States needs to detect these mysterious high-altitude balloons before they’re directly on top of us.

As tensions continue to simmer on the global stage, incidents like the recent balloon interception serve as stark reminders of the evolving nature of security threats to the United States homeland. The requirement for robust defense capabilities prioritizing overhead persistent awareness and international sharing of open architecture has never been more apparent. Vigilance, coupled with strategic foresight and collaboration, remains paramount in safeguarding national interests amidst an increasingly uncertain geopolitical landscape.

“The Pentagon is still on a capabilities-based development, Industry matches that, Congress matches that; all those things must change for this to work. All you must do is go back to a threat-based development and if the threat is so severe then you must figure out how to take threats to respond to it.”

General (Retired) John E. Hyten

Click here for more information on the balloon incident.

Mission Statement

MDAA’s mission is to make the world safer by advocating for the development and deployment of missile defense systems to defend the United States, its armed forces and its allies against missile threats.

MDAA is the only organization in existence whose primary mission is to educate the American public about missile defense issues and to recruit, organize, and mobilize proponents to advocate for the critical need of missile defense. We are a non-partisan membership-based and membership-funded organization that does not advocate on behalf of any specific system, technology, architecture or entity.