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Former NORAD leader on the challenges of detecting small, uncrewed flying objects


As people from Montana to South Carolina watched the Chinese spy balloon sail across the sky before it was destroyed last week, it was being closely monitored by NORAD. That's the North American Aerospace Command based in Colorado. NORAD, along with Northern Command, also detected the two other objects which were seen over Alaska and Canada.

Joining us now is retired Vice Admiral Mike Dumont. He was deputy commander of Northern Command and vice commander of NORAD. Welcome to the program.

MIKE DUMONT: Thank you.

SUMMERS: So we have heard a great deal about NORAD and Northern Command over the past week or so. So I'm hoping we can just start by briefly having you tell us how they operate and what it is that they do track on a day-to-day basis.

DUMONT: So I think it's important at the outset, Juana, to understand they're two separate organizations. The U.S. Northern Command is a U.S. military headquarters. And NORAD is a binational organization comprised of members of both the American military and the Canadian military. So their mission is to provide aerospace warning, aerospace defense and maritime warning to the approaches of North America. And NORAD has a variety of ways of doing that, using sophisticated technologies and some less sophisticated technologies.

SUMMERS: Can you give us a couple examples of what that looks like to the degree that you can share with us?

DUMONT: Sure. So the headquarters has a large operations center with massive video displays and control rooms, as you can imagine. And they're monitoring the airspace over the United States and Canada, what is going on in foreign countries, especially adversary countries, and the maritime approaches to the United States and to Canada, looking for any possible threats or any indicators that something may be going awry.

SUMMERS: So given all of these ways that NORAD can track things, its sophisticated satellites and radars, why is it that NORAD could not pick up this Chinese balloon that is said to be the size of a 10-story building?

DUMONT: The radars and the satellites that NORAD uses are focused on certain parts of the world, and they're focused on certain types of threats - aircraft and missiles, things of this nature. They're not really focused on smaller objects like weather balloons or a spy balloon because the radars have a hard time picking them up. When we think of satellites and threats to the United States and Canada, the satellite has to have a triggering event for it to pick up. And by that, I mean when a missile launches or a rocket launches from a foreign country, our satellites will detect that signature. There is no such signature or an explosive event for the launching of a balloon. Unless you know exactly where the balloon is taking off from, it's hard to put a satellite into position to detect that.

SUMMERS: OK. So playing this out here, we now hear that NORAD could pick up a smaller balloon the size of a car that was off Alaska. Does that mean that there's been some sort of adjustments to their monitoring?

DUMONT: No doubt. I don't have firsthand knowledge of this, but if I were in that same role today, I would have made some recommendations that we adjust our ability to detect certain threats, and maybe the size and the composition of what we're looking for with our radars would be adjusted. And I'm sure that's what's taken place and that's why they're able to detect this more. They're looking for them specifically.

SUMMERS: Based on your experience with NORAD in the past, do you believe that NORAD currently has the base capabilities that exist in order to detect these sorts of airborne threats?

DUMONT: NORAD and USNORTHCOM rely on what we call the North Warning System, which is an array of short- and long-range radars in northern Canada, Alaska and elsewhere. They were put into place in the late 1980s, and that system of radar coverage was concluded in about 1992. It's 1970s technology. So no, NORAD does not have what it needs to adequately defend North America. They need new sensors, sensors that are able to detect in all domains. And by all domains, I mean space, land, air for aviation threats, cyber and maritime. Because NORAD's mandate is to be able to detect, deter and then defeat any potential threats, and it's hard to do that when you're using 1970s technology.

SUMMERS: And I have to imagine it would alarm a number of people to hear you say that this is 1970s technology that is being used to detect these types of airborne threats or even, since we don't know a lot about them, these anomalies. Why is it so outdated?

DUMONT: Well, you know, these are very expensive systems. They are backed up by satellites. And they are backed up by other intelligence sources. But the radars are one of our key pieces of equipment to detect threats. And when you think about where the radars are located, they're operating in harsh operating conditions. The geography plays a role in how much the radars can see because mountains and curvature of the Earth will impact the ability of the radars to detect threats on the horizon. So those are all ground-based radars. Those are some of the inherent limitations in our current system.

SUMMERS: Retired Vice Admiral Mike Dumont, who served with both Northern Command and NORAD, thank you so much for being here.

DUMONT: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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