U.S. Military Had to Shoot 2 Missiles at Flying Object Over Lake Huron After First Missile Missed

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The nation’s top military officer said on Tuesday that a U.S. fighter jet missed this week when it fired a missile at an object flying over Lake Huron, before the second missile was launched and hit it.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the wayward missile “landed harmlessly” in the water, but it raises troubling questions about the newfound American policy to fire at unidentified flying objects in US airspace.

Before launching a missile in U.S. airspace, the military works with civilian aviation authorities to clear airspace and appraise whether any falling debris could endanger people on the ground, Milley said. “We go to great lengths to make sure that the airspace is clear and the backdrop is clear,” he said at NATO headquarters in Brussels, after a meeting on the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. military was directed by President Joe Biden to destroy a mysterious craft in midair Sunday for the fourth time in eight days. The Pentagon is now trying to obtain debris from each of the four shoot-downs to learn more about the crafts penetrating North American airspace.

“We’re very, very careful to make sure that those shots are in fact safe,” Milley said. “And that’s the guidance from the president. Shoot it down, but make sure we minimize collateral damage, and we preserve the safety of the American people.”

Other than the first balloon, which China has acknowledged was theirs, the Pentagon doesn’t yet know what the objects are or where they came from—and yet they are ordering military pilots to shoot them down.

Read more: Why the Military Keeps Spotting so Many Unidentified Flying Objects—and Then Shooting Them Down

During the most recent mission, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) saw on radar screens that a flying object breached U.S. airspace on Saturday over Montana. The craft was not in communication with the Federal Aviation Administration, so military pilots were ordered to investigate. The pilots could not determine whether it was state-owned or privately-owned and referred to its appearance as balloon-like.

The next day, a F-16 fighter blew it apart with a supersonic, heat-seeking AIM-9X Sidewinder at around 20,000 ft. in altitude above Lake Huron, near the Canadian border. Officials said that the object–like the others shot down in recent days—posed a reasonable threat to commercial air traffic.

The flurry of aerial incidents is due at least in part to an increase in military vigilance in the wake of the discovery of a massive Chinese balloon traversing through U.S. airspace this month. The balloon’s flightpath took it over sensitive security sites, including a sprawling field in Montana where nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles sit ready-for-launch in underground silos.

Republicans in recent weeks have criticized the administration for not shooting down the 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.

NORAD has since tweaked its radar to account for lower speeds and sizes to spot more flying objects, which is why the military says it has found—and blasted apart—more objects. The military is now working to retrieve the debris from each of the objects to establish what exactly it shot down.

White House officials made clear on Monday that they did not believe any of the flying objects had an alien or extraterrestrial source.

“I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens with respect to these craft. Period,” John Kirby, the White House national security council spokesman, told reporters.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan/Brussels at william.hennigan@time.com