U.S. shoots down unknown object over Alaska as China tension grows
President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to shoot down an object spotted at 40,000 feet over Alaska less than a week after fighter jets targeted an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon that had crossed the U.S. and provoked a national uproar.
The unidentified object, which was about the size of a car and didn’t have the ability to maneuver, “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” the White House said. The nature and origin of the craft was unknown, though National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said it was far smaller than the Chinese balloon downed off the coast of South Carolina last Saturday.
The Pentagon has deployed planes and helicopters to recover the object, which fell onto ice.
The object was downed off northeastern Alaska, near the border with Canada, in Arctic Ocean waters after being identified overnight. The president was then briefed. F-22 fighter jets flew by to observe it Thursday night and again Friday before it was shot down with a Sidewinder missile — the same type used to bring down the balloon off South Carolina.
U.S. officials said there had been no outreach to China about the latest object. There is nothing yet to indicate what it was or where it came from, and no evidence it came from China.
Its presence will, however, raise questions of whether there is any linkage to the Chinese balloon that was identified early last week and which the U.S. argues was part of military-led espionage program in some 40 countries. U.S. crews are working to recover the wreckage of that balloon.
In a separate briefing, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the search crews had located a significant amount of debris from the Chinese balloon, though he said bad weather was keeping them from bringing most of it up from the ocean floor.
He said there was no indication that the two episodes were connected while acknowledging the apparent similarities.
“I think we are all, to include the media and the public, very attuned to balloons at the moment,” Ryder said.
The latest drama will only prolong the balloon episode, which has gripped U.S. and global attention since last Wednesday when residents in Montana spotted a white object high above in the sky. The U.S. has since argued that the Chinese balloon was sent deliberately by China to surveil the U.S. and was a violation of US airspace.
Chinese officials have insisted the balloon that was shot down last week was a weather-monitoring device that blew off course. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Friday that the balloon was a civilian craft and its transit across the U.S. last week was an “isolated, unexpected incident.”
Biden has said the alleged espionage incident didn’t seriously hurt U.S.China relations, even though it forced Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned trip and led to an increasingly heated series of accusations from both sides. Biden has also come under fire from Republican lawmakers who said the balloon should have never been allowed to traverse the continental U.S. for a week before it was shot down.
As the U.S. measures its response, the Biden administration was poised to blacklist Chinese companies over what it argues are links to the military-backed espionage program.
The White House was expected to announce sanctions on the Chinese entities as soon as Friday afternoon, making good on promises made by several officials to target companies that supplied the People’s Liberation Army program.
ABC News reported Friday that the balloon’s main undercarriage has been located underwater and is largely intact. The report, which cited US officials who weren’t identified, said the equipment had yet to be retrieved.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation released photographs that showed agents examining the balloon’s white canopy and helping direct vessels across the water in search of new material. On a call Thursday, FBI officials told reporters the bureau had yet to access the balloon’s main payload.
In a series of briefings and hearings with lawmakers on Thursday, US officials argued there was no doubt that the balloon was a surveillance device used under a program run by China’s People’s Liberation Army. They said it was carrying equipment with sensors designed to pick up communications signals and pointed to the fact that it had hovered over sensitive U.S. military sites during its transit across the US.
The Biden administration said the manufacturer of the device, which it didn’t name, had a direct relationship with the People’s Liberation Army.
Attention was also shifting to how China sourced the parts that went into the balloon’s payload, as lawmakers questioned whether President Joe Biden ought to have done more to limit the export of sensitive technology to China.