WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States military shot down a “high-altitude object” flying over Alaskan airspace and Arctic waters on Friday afternoon, National Security Council official John Kirby confirmed at the White House.
Kirby said the US doesn’t know who owns the object, and he wouldn’t call it a balloon like the one shot down by the US military on Saturday, which was allegedly owned by the Chinese government.
“We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now,” Kirby said during a White House briefing to reporters. “We have no idea who owns it, whether it is state-owned, corporate-owned, or privately owned. We simply don’t know.”
He claimed that the Pentagon had been tracking the object for the past 24 hours.
“The object was flying at 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” Kirby said during a White House briefing. “Out of caution and at the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Biden ordered the military to down the object, which they did, and it came inside our territorial waters, which are now frozen.”
U.S. Northern Command fighter planes shot down the object “within the last hour,” Kirby said around 2:30 p.m. ET. Before it was shot down, the pilots were able to determine that it was “unmanned,” he added.
President Joe Biden responded briefly to a question from reporters at the White House on the subject. “Success,” the president said of the object’s downing.
According to Kirby, the object was shot down over the Arctic Sea by pilots just off the northeastern coast of Alaska, near the Canadian border.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that he’d been “briefed on the matter” and supported the decision to take action. To keep people safe, our military and intelligence services will always collaborate, including through @NORADCommand.”
The purpose of the object was not fully understood by US officials, according to Kirby, who added that the US expects to be able to recover the debris. “A recovery effort will be undertaken, and we hope that it will be successful so that we can learn a little bit more about it,” he said.
The object, which was discovered Thursday evening in the United States, was described as “roughly the size of a small car,” according to Kirby.
During a press conference, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder provided additional details, noting that the object was shot down at 1:45 p.m. ET.
According to Ryder, the US detected the object on ground radar and then investigated it with aircraft. He added that the object was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet using an A9X missile.
The operation was coordinated by the United States Northern Command, with assistance from the Alaska Air National Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the FBI, according to Ryder.
The debris-recovery process is taking place amid a mix of ice and snow, and the response has included Alaska-based units led by US Northern Command, as well as the Alaskan National Guard, according to the Pentagon on Friday night.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called the incident a “threat to our sovereignty” on NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt.”
“We need to be clear…that we do not tolerate this at all,” Murkowski said, adding that she had received a classified briefing on the subject.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he was briefed on the object by senior Pentagon officials and that the US must “reestablish deterrence” in response to the Chinese government, which he says “believes they can willfully infiltrate American airspace whenever they want.”
“That must cease. “The best way to accomplish this is through actions like the ones we took today in Alaska, and to publicly reiterate that we will shoot down any and all unknown aircraft that violate our airspace,” said Sullivan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement. “We must also adequately equip our military in Alaska with the sensors and aircraft necessary to detect and, if necessary, destroy everything from slow-moving balloons to hypersonic missiles.”
Sullivan later told Fox News that the object was shot down over Deadhorse, Alaska, near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.
When it was discovered, the object was travelling northeast across Alaska, according to the Pentagon.
When asked why the US seemed to take more immediate action in downing the object, Ryder said, “In this particular case, given the fact that it was operating at an altitude that posed a reasonable threat to civilian air traffic, the determination was made and the president gave the order to take it down.”
Civilian aircraft, he added, typically fly at 40,000 to 45,000 feet, so the object posed a “threat to or potential hazard to civilian air traffic.”
The Pentagon determined that the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down last week was flying at an altitude of about 60,000 feet.
Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted, “Glad to see the President act swiftly on this new intrusion into our airspace.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing more details as the recovery and investigation continue,” Warner said.
Kirby stated that the object in Alaska did not appear to be capable of independently manoeuvring like the Chinese balloon that flew above the United States for eight days before collapsing off the coast of South Carolina.
“The first one could manoeuvre and loiter, slow down and speed up,” Kirby explained. “It was very deliberate.”
While the Pentagon stated last week that the balloon posed no physical or military threat to the United States, it raised concerns about the possibility of sensitive information being collected and heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington.
According to numerous sightings, the balloon flew close to prominent sites associated with the US nuclear arsenal. According to a senior State Department official, it carried “multiple antennas” capable of gathering signal intelligence as well as solar panels to power its “multiple active intelligence collection sensors.” Officials in the United States have maintained that the balloon’s ability to collect more data than Chinese satellites is limited.
The balloon was shot down by an F-22 Raptor equipped with a Sidewinder missile under Biden’s command. Since then, the Navy has led a collection effort for its debris, which is being analysed at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia.
The balloon incident forced Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel his planned trip to Beijing, the first by a US secretary of state since Mike Pompeo’s visit in 2018. The goal was to defuse recent tensions between the two countries. Instead, China and the United States have clashed over the alleged spy balloon programme.
It has also sparked a political firestorm in Congress, with Republicans and Democrats demanding answers from the Biden administration about why the administration waited so long to respond to the balloon and why similar Chinese balloon incursions in the past were only recently discovered.
“Do we have a plan in place for the next time this happens, and how we intend to deal with it?” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., questioned defence officials testifying on Capitol Hill on Thursday about the alleged spy balloons. “Because, quite frankly, I don’t want a damn balloon flying across the United States.”