A U.S. fighter jet shot down an unidentified object flying off the Alaskan coast Friday on the order of President Joe Biden.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the aircraft was brought down “out of an abundance of caution,” because it was flying at an altitude of 40,000 ft. and “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight.”
“President Biden ordered the military to down the object and they did,” Kirby told reporters at the White House. The military is currently conducting a recovery operation to analyze the debris field, which is scattered across snow and ice in northern Alaska.
The incident comes less than a week after a F-22 stealth fighter jet brought down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast. The discovery of the aircraft and subsequent shoot-down sparked a diplomatic standoff between Washington and Beijing.
It’s not yet clear whether the aircraft that was shot down near Deadhorse, Alaska belonged to China or some other nation, Kirby said. But he noted it was much smaller than the 200 ft. balloon that the U.S. took out last week. The new object was “roughly the size of a small car,” Kirby said.
“We’re calling this an ‘object’ because that’s the best description we have right now,” he said. “We do not know who owns it, whether it’s state-owned or corporate-owned or privately-owned. We just don’t know.”
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) had been tracking the object over the last 24 hours, before it was downed. Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder said NORAD first detected the aircraft via ground radar Thursday and “further investigated” it as it flew in a northeasterly direction.
The Pentagon has “no indication” the aircraft had a pilot onboard, he said.
On Friday, the Air Force scrambled two F-22 fighter jets from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. At 1:45 p.m. Eastern Time, one of the fighters fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile that hit and destroyed the object—the same aircraft-missile combination that downed the high-altitude Chinese balloon last Saturday.
“We’re still assessing what this object was,” Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon, adding that the U.S. hasn’t yet determined the point of origin. “Again, we will know more once we’re able to potentially recover some of those materials, he said. “But the primary concern was the potential hazard to civil flight.”
Republicans have spent the past week criticizing the administration for not shooting down the Chinese balloon when it was first spotted above the Aleutian Islands near Alaska on Jan. 28, and then allowed to travel through Canada two days later, and ultimately into the continental U.S. over Idaho on Jan. 31.
The Navy is now midway through salvaging the Chinese balloon in the Atlantic Ocean. Debris is being loaded on naval vessels, taken ashore to be catalogued and transferred to laboratories for analysis, Ryder said.
U.S. intelligence recently established China’s aerial surveillance program, which included balloons of various sizes and capabilities. The balloons had been spotted in more than 40 countries across five continents.
There’s no indication that the object shot down Friday is linked to the balloon program, Ryder said, but he added: “I think we’re all… very attuned to balloons at the moment.”
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