February 13, 2023 - 3:05pm

It’s been a weird weekend in North America. Or rather, above it. On Saturday, a “high altitude airborne object” was detected over Northern Canada. It was judged a threat to aviation — and shot down on the orders of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. However, because the Canadians don’t have the right aircraft for this sort of thing, the Americans did it for them. How neighbourly.

According to the BBC, two further unidentified objects have been shot down by the US military since Friday — one over Alaska, the other over Lake Huron. “At times [it] seemed like an invasion of unidentified flying objects,” observed the New York Times. I think that’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but as the NYT reporters also note: “if the truth is out there, it certainly is not apparent yet.”

Exactly what happened is indeed unclear, not to mention classified. However, a CNN report features some intriguing claims. For instance, it is said that that one of the objects “interfered” with the sensors of aircraft sent to intercept it. And that’s not all: “some pilots also claimed to have seen no identifiable propulsion on the object, and could not explain how it was staying in the air, despite the object cruising at an altitude of 40,000 feet.”

Of course, it could just be a balloon. Famously, balloons don’t need a propulsion system to stay aloft and while they don’t “cruise”, they do drift in the wind. What’s more, it was only last week that a Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina.

And yet all of this comes at a time when UFO observations are being taken more seriously than they have for decades. In America, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence now issues reports on “unidentified aerial phenomena” or UAPs. The latest update, issued last month, summarises 366 “newly-identified” sightings. It concludes that over half of these encounters appear to be “unremarkable” — such as the 163 cases “characterised as balloon or balloon-like entities”. However, that still leaves “uncharacterised” UAPs which “appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities”. 

So that’s a US government agency openly admitting that something very unexplained is out there. Further, these “flight characteristics” — as described by US military observers — involve manoeuvres that exceed the known technology of any nation on Earth. 

As for the general public, a 2021 poll of Canadians found that 17% of respondents agreed that their government ought to have a “battle plan” to deal with a potential “alien invasion” — a further 32% were unsure. At least they now know Justin Trudeau’s policy on Johnny Martian: shoot first, ask questions later. 

My view is that we should treat UFO scares seriously if not literally. Previous scares have tended to coincide with the development of airborne military technologies, which people have every right to be afraid of. For instance, the flying saucers of the Cold War may not have existed, but nuclear ICBMs certainly did. 

Long before the golden era of UFOs, there was the now forgotten phantom airship scare of the 1890s. Again, most of the sightings may have been more imagined than real, but dirigible technology did exist at the time and would soon be used for the first aerial bombardments of civilian targets. 

Today, we have drone technology to worry about. Already a feature of 21st-century warfare, it might not be long before drones become a deadly terrorist weapon. So call us irrational, but we do have reason to look to the skies with fear. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.