U.S. fighter jets shot down yet another “unidentified object” on Sunday—this time over the Great Lakes above Michigan—marking the third time they have taken down an object over the past three days, and the fourth in a little over a week.
Initial reports of an “unidentified object” early this month turned out to be a Chinese spy balloon, which was likely being used to gather intel as it traversed over several sensitive sites in the U.S. That balloon was later taken down near South Carolina’s coast on Feb. 4.
But officials have indicated that the other objects are not like the Chinese balloon, which was estimated to be 200 feet tall and traveled at an altitude of 60,000 feet—above the ceiling of passenger jets. They were spotted at lower altitudes, where they could pose a risk to civilian aircraft.
When asked whether these objects could be aliens, Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) initially demurred: “I haven’t ruled out anything.”
That comment has done little to quell the speculation about what the objects are and who owns them. But on Tuesday, John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council, ruled out China and suggested the three additional objects shot down were likely benign commercial devices. “We don’t see anything that points right now to these being part of the PRC spy balloon program or, in fact, intelligence collection against the United States of any kind,” he said.
The Biden Administration previously accused China of conducting multiple high-altitude surveillance missions affecting more than 40 countries thus far. China, in turn, accused the U.S of flying surveillance balloons over Chinese airspace at least 10 times since last year, which the White House has denied.
Here’s the information we have thus far.
On Jan. 28, a 200-foot-tall spy balloon first traveled above the Aleutian Islands near Alaska before it broke into the continental U.S. on Jan. 31. Civilian pilots then spotted the balloon and raised concerns, prompting the Pentagon to admit to its presence in the country on Feb. 2. Officials temporarily ordered a halt to flights coming in and out of Billings, Mont., and sent F-22 stealth fighter jets to the area.
The journey of the balloon was the cause of much debate, as many questioned why officials were waiting to act. American fighter jets later shot down the surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4, as President Biden wanted to wait for the object to reach water to prevent pounds of debris from endangering Americans’ homes and lives.
“Our number one concern was how can we take this down, while not creating undue risk to people or property,” a senior defense official told the press during a background briefing call.
The U.S. State Department said the balloon had technology that likely allowed it to collect data on Americans’ communications and location. The Chinese spy balloon’s flightpath went over multiple security sites, including Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile fields.
The recent balloon sighting marks one out of at least four similar incidents that happened under the Trump administration—when balloons were reportedly seen making their way to Texas, Florida, and Guam—which officials discovered after U-2 spy planes captured photos and collected electronic data of the recent Chinese spy balloon before it was shot down. Defense officials said there was an existing “domain awareness gap” that prevented them from detecting spy balloons that had previously entered U.S. territory.
On Friday, a separate unidentified object, which was flying at 40,000 feet, was shot down near Alaska’s waters “out of an abundance of caution,” according to Kirby. He added that the object “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight.”
Officials initially believed the object was a balloon, but are now unsure about who owned the object or what it was after the object broke into pieces when it hit the frozen water, according to the New York Times.
Kirby also told reporters that the object was much smaller than the 200 ft. balloon from earlier in the week and was roughly the size of a “small car.” The object, which was unmanned, was tracked by NORAD for 24 hours after it was spotted on Thursday, and was then shot down.
“We’re calling this an ‘object’ because that’s the best description we have right now,” Kirby said.
On Saturday, another “unidentified object” was shot down by a U.S. military jet. It was initially found in American airspace and then later moved into Canadian territory before being shot down by an F-22 on orders from President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The object, which was described as “cylindrical,” was said to be flying at around 40,000 feet as it was shot down before 4 p.m. While talking to reporters on Saturday night, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said she couldn’t identify exactly what the object was or its origin.
The object was first detected on Friday by NORAD, and two F-22 fighter jets from Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson in Alaska began monitoring the object closely, according to NORAD. On Saturday, once the object reached Canadian airspace, it was shot down by a short-range missile (an AIM-9X) near central Yukon, according to officials.
Officials said they hope to be able to recover the object and “determine more details on its purpose or origin,” according to a White House statement released on Saturday.
On Sunday afternoon, American and Canadian government officials tweeted that yet another object—described as an “octagonal structure”—had been taken down over U.S. airspace near the Canadian border. The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed in a statement that an American F-16 shot down an object over Lake Huron. “The location chosen for this shoot down afforded us the opportunity to avoid impact to people on the ground while improving chances for debris recovery.” Much remains unknown about the latest flying object but it was deemed “a safety flight hazard and a threat due to its potential surveillance capabilities.”
China has spotted their own unidentified object near the city of Rhizao and is preparing to shoot it down, Chinese State media reported Sunday.
“Local maritime authorities in East China’s Shandong Province announced on Sunday that they had spotted an unidentified flying object in waters near the coastal city of Rizhao in the province and were preparing to shoot it down, reminding fishermen to be safe via messages,” the Global Times, a state-controlled media outlet, said in a tweet on Sunday.
There has been no further information released on what the object is or if it has been taken down.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Webin claimed the U.S. commonly flies their own high-altitude balloons into other countries’ airspace. Wenbin said that in the last year balloons entered Chinese airspace “more than 10 times without the approval of relevant Chinese authorities.”
White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson denied these allegations.
“Any claim that the U.S. government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false,” she tweeted early Monday. “This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control. It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the U.S. was a weather balloon and has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace, airspace of others.”
What are these objects? Could they be aliens?
Since the discovery of the Chinese surveillance balloon, security officials have been more on guard, opting to make the NORAD radar systems more sensitive to better detect slower moving objects in the sky—rather than focusing on fast-moving things like missiles and planes. That likely plays a role in why so many new objects are being reported.
“We have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton at a press conference Sunday evening.
Some officials have speculated that the unidentified objects could be surveillance tools by other foreign nations.
U.S. officials are currently reviewing all the evidence to fully assess what these objects are, where they are from, and their purpose, though they have not yet recovered the fallen debris as the objects were shot down in remote locations.
NORAD commander VanHerck told reporters on Sunday that all possibilities remained open, including extraterrestrials. But the White House ruled aliens out on Monday.
On Tuesday, the White House held a classified briefing with senators and assured them that intelligence suggests the three unidentified objects were not a threat. Many on both sides of the aisle are still demanding greater transparency.
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