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According to NY Times, the military shot down a few unidentified flying objects after being visually confirmed:

The U.S. and Canada are investigating three unidentified flying objects shot down over North America in the past three days. Militaries have adjusted radars to try to spot more incursions.

American officials do not know what the objects were, much less their purpose or who sent them.

Shortly put, the events were something along the line:

  • military radars spotted some UFOs and sent aircrafts for visual confirmation
  • the objects were shot down
  • the US Military did not know (at that time) what those objects were

This makes me wonder how can they decide to shoot down an object, if the nature is not clear? How do they know if the object is not hazardous (e.g., biological or maybe even nuclear)?

How does the military decide if an unidentified flying object can or should be shot down or not?

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    Meh, it's pretty clear the later shootdowns were due to political pressure in the US from Republicans saying the 1st/big balloon wasn't shot down soon enough. There's no NATO policy on this that I know of. Feb 15, 2023 at 17:12
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    I suspect they're not really unidentified; the gov just isn't comfortable telling the populace what they are or who sent them. The nature IS clear, they just don't want to tell us.
    – Ryan_L
    Feb 15, 2023 at 17:37
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    Based on my knowledge of science fiction movies, UFOs should usually be shot down but usually can't be.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 15, 2023 at 18:03
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    Is this question about the military or politics. I feel that more tactical, in the field decisions should not be part of politics, the rationales behind these tactics however should. Is this really a politics questions or simply a question about how somebody solves a difficult problem? Feb 15, 2023 at 20:26
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    This question seems to be drawing a lot of speculation about how it would be decided with no evidence to back up the answers.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:11

4 Answers 4

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The same way they decide on every other kinetic action: Rules of Engagement and Rules for the Use of Force.

Also, self defense. Roughly: if someone is currently shooting you, you can generally shoot back to make them stop. I don't know of any reason that would apply with UFOs, but if the Martians attack tomorrow, self defense would be a factor.

Generally, Rules of Engagement (ROE) for United States forces are the rules around what you can and cannot do to accomplish some mission outside the USA. Wikipedia has a good summary, with an example (link). Generally for any deployment, you would have a blanket policy on ROE (like the example in the link), which supports international-law obligations and, perhaps more importantly, supports the overarching mission. I think there are weird corner cases where ROE could apply inside the US borders (like invasion, maybe?), but the good rule of thumb is that ROE is for outside the US. It is very easy to imagine that in something like Desert Storm, shooting down UFOs would be entirely at the pilot's discretion (or wing leader, or whoever has local command). In something like the Somalia Relief operation in the '90s, it would be very surprising if UFOs could be shot down. The base instruction for this is CJCSI 3121.01, which establishes standing rules of engagement which apply whenever something more specific is not available.

Inside US borders there is a similar document, but with a different purpose. Where ROE are focused on legally and effectively achieving some operational or strategic objective, Rules for the Use of Force (RUF) focus on DoD use of force in a supporting role (like drug interdictions, where some Navy aircraft might be acting subsidiary to the Coast Guard). I am told this focus is to ensure compliance with the posse comitatus act, but I don't have any detailed insight. There is no underlying or cohesive framework for RUF, which makes it hard to provide a general answer.

In either case: ROE and RUF policy is controlled by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Changes or augmentations to ROE/RUF can be proposed by local commanders and must be approved by SECDEF. It is exceedingly unlikely (and probably illegal) for RUF to give the military authority to shoot down weather balloons different from, say, whatever authority the Coast Guard has.


So:

  • If the UFO is attacking in a way that makes self-defense viable and valid, the decision to shoot it down can be made very locally.

  • If outside the US, consult the relevant ROE.

  • If inside the US, and operating as part of some other agency, consult the RUF.

Outside the US, ROE tend to allow leeway for commanders to make decisions in line with force protection and their overall goals. Inside the US, I presume that anything other than strictly-defensive actions would need SECDEF approval, as it is essentially SECDEF policy that prevents engagement.

(I am unclear on what happens if SECDEF and the president disagree in a serious way, e.g. if Biden said "shoot" and Austin said "no". At that point, the UFO is probably a lower priority.)


@cpast corrected an error:

Minor correction: Per JP 3-27, air and maritime homeland defense missions are under the ROE framework instead of the RUF framework. Land homeland defense operations within US territory are RUF, but this air mission generally wouldn’t be.


Additional reading here.

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  • Minor correction: Per JP 3-27, air and maritime homeland defense missions are under the ROE framework instead of the RUF framework. Land homeland defense operations within US territory are RUF, but this air mission generally wouldn’t be.
    – cpast
    Feb 17, 2023 at 15:12
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At least in Canada and the US, it won't be the military that decides. It will be some political authority. Depending on the nature of the perceived threat, it may go to the PM or POTUS. Or it may only go to cabinet. But the military won't ordinarily just start shooting at something without the go-ahead.

There may be policies for emergency circumstances where consulting is impossible due to time constraints. Say, something was coming in at ICBM type speeds and there was only a half hour (or maybe less) of warning. Maybe you can't get the PM on the line in time. (Though, pretty sure Canada at least does not have the ability to do much of anything about something coming that fast.)

But for stuff coming in at ordinary speeds, the question is going to go to elected officials, quite likely the national leader. This is because there is, if it turns out to have been something non-dangerous and from another country, there will be a lot of international questions asked. If it was, for example, a crazy new type of aircraft with people on board, shooting it down would be a Very Bad Thing. The type of thing wars have started over.

As well, the military folks who would be doing the shooting are not the people who have other resources relevant to the issue.

In cases of some object that could be a hazard to other aircraft, there will likely be some efforts to identify it. Maybe some fly-by missions. Some looking through telescopes and examining radar and trying to send radio messages. Maybe some asking-around in diplomatic circles if anybody is missing a balloon. Some looking back through various radar records and such to see if anything was detected on the way.

So Fighter Command Alpha (or whatever) can decide to do some of that. But they very likely don't have diplomatic contacts to ask for chatter about over-flights. They won't have intel on crazy new airplanes that some crazy tech company is rolling out. They won't have data on what people have been seeing in the sky for the last week. They are busy doing things to keep their aircraft and pilots ready and in good shape and training. And they have not got the authority to get Spy Agency One to talk to Spy Agency Two and trade data on things that look like balloons. Only the political leaders can wave that baton.

There are a number of factors that might make it more likely to be attacked.

  • It's headed someplace sensitive like a military base.
  • Nobody claims it. Nobody gave warning of releasing or losing anything like it.
  • It's headed for places it could do damage to just by being there. Big cities, airports, industrial facilities where even just a few 10's of kg of metal or a few square meters of balloon fabric could cause significant damage.
  • It is in air-flight lanes.
  • It shows no response to attempts to contact it.

Evidence the thing is being controlled could go either way. If, for example, it is busy catching wind in a particular direction by changing altitude, then it heads straight at a nuclear missile silo, chances go way up that it gets attacked. If it shows no evidence at all of being controlled, that also tends to make it more likely to be attacked.

If it's heading to "big open places" with nothing in particular that could be harmed or be of military interest, and if it's not in a place likely to be a hazard to navigation, chances are excellent it gets watched and left alone.

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    What evidence do you have that this would not be a military decision and would be a political one? And who would be the one making that call? I don't think this would go all the way up to the president.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:09
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    @JoeW The US Constitution. senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/declarations-of-war.htm
    – Boba Fit
    Feb 15, 2023 at 23:29
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    Shooting down an unknown object is not remotely the same as declaring war.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 23:32
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    @JoeW What basis do you have for thinking the President isn’t personally involved? The US has said Biden gave the order, and that also aligns with how these decisions would typically be made. When the US isn’t at war, a lot of decisions about the use of force do go to the President.
    – cpast
    Feb 16, 2023 at 3:55
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    @BobaFit You might want to rephrase the line about "The type of thing wars have started over" if you don't intend your post to say shooting down unknown objects can lead to war. Airliners get accidentally shot down several times per decade, sometimes with hundreds of lives lost, I'm not sure it's ever lead to war?
    – mjt
    Feb 16, 2023 at 13:20
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It isn't easy to say. Even the current reaction to UFOs has divided Washington right now according to politicians:

No one has a playbook in politics for shooting down UFOs that are not aliens. - Democratic strategist Jared Leopold

Generally, however, decisions about U.S.-Canadian airspace are made with intel from NORAD or the North American Aerospace Defense Command. It is a combined organization run by the two countries that have been around since 1958. There is a main four-star general or admiral from the U.S. and a deputy commander from the Royal Canadian Air Force. NORAD works to try to provide an accurate picture of any aerospace or maritime threat to the United States or Canada.

All of this depends on which area of NORAD is being entered and for what purpose to make a decision, which is why it is not clear. For example, there is a particular Canadian NORAD region monitored by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Border Services Agency along with US agencies to direct aircraft to the nearest air base or shoot it down based on their collective decisions without necessarily telling higher-ups until after the fact. Meanwhile, a huge part of the continental US has the Continental U.S. NORAD Region has the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command occasionally take lead in operations with Homeland Security (with even the POTUS potentially being involved) in order to detect, divert, or defeat airborne attacks in accordance with Operation Noble Eagle - a playbook for dealing with homeland security threats developed since 9/11.

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  • This doesn't seem to provide an actual answer of how the decision is made.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:10
  • @JoeW Again, I believe this is the closest answer since there is no perfect playbook for shooting down UFOs and no perfect exact answer according to politicians, but the closest we have is NORAD and its commanders detecting something & telling the US govt/Canadian govt to make a joint decision on whether they shoot down a UFO or not.
    – Tyler Mc
    Feb 15, 2023 at 23:40
  • There may be no perfect playbook for it but there are playbooks for what is done and who decides it when objects fly close to military bases and equipment.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 23:43
  • @JoeW added to my answer, but it seems like a huge reason why there is no perfect playbook is because it seems to depend on the object entering airspace, which region of NORAD is being attacked, and other factors as to who in specific makes the decisions for shooting things down that enter US-Canadian airspace.
    – Tyler Mc
    Feb 15, 2023 at 23:52
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"The military" does not generally decide. They can recommend, but the civilian government gives the go ahead.

But these last 3 balloons were a specific hazard for aircraft navigation. They were cruising along at 40,000 feet or lower, and apparently not under any control or notification.

Civilian aircraft fly at these altitudes.

There are specific international rules for things like this flying around. Notify the relevant owners of the airspace, update its location every 2 hours, etc, etc.

These objects did not seem to be under any positive control. Or if they were being controlled, the controllers told no one.

Result, shoot it down.

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    What evidence do you have that this would not be a military decision and would be a political one? And who would be the one making that call? I don't think this would go all the way up to the president.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:11
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    A wing commander wouldn't be in charge of the base and depending on the situation it is very possible that they don't have time to go up to the joint chiefs of staff. This seems like a lot of speculation without anything to back it up.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 22:33
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    And a wing commander won't be in charge of the location that they are stationed at and I am not saying that the decision would be made by the pilot of a plane. There are many levels of command between a wing commander and the joint chiefs of staff let alone the president. There is no reason to think that a decision like this has to go all the way to the top especially since we don't know all the details of what happened.
    – Joe W
    Feb 15, 2023 at 23:11
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    @JoeW The President is not the only civilian in the chain of command. SECDEF is also a civilian. And whatever you may think about timelines, the US has invested a lot of money into making sure that the President can personally be alerted of emergencies in a matter of minutes. You’re accusing everyone else of speculation, but your entire argument seems rooted in “well maybe things happen too fast for it to make it that high.” Keep in mind that this is the first time NORAD has ever fired a shot in anger. This isn’t some routine situation.
    – cpast
    Feb 16, 2023 at 3:51
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    @JoeW Biden has now publicly confirmed he gave the orders. Your gut feeling (which I'll note wasn't backed with any of the evidence you kept demanding) is wildly miscalibrated on this. US military decisions go up to the President a lot more often than you'd think, and an incredibly rare decision to use military force domestically is especially likely to go to the President.
    – cpast
    Feb 17, 2023 at 3:16

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