President Joe Biden on Friday ordered a fighter jet to shoot down an unidentified aerial object over northern Alaska, but neither the Pentagon nor the White House would characterize it as a Chinese surveillance balloon like the aircraft the U.S. shot down last week.
U.S. Northern Command first began tracking the object late Thursday and determined it was unmanned, the White House and Pentagon said. Biden gave the order to shoot it down early on Friday, and an Air Force F-22 assigned to the command did so at roughly 1:45 p.m. Eastern Time.
Unlike the Chinese surveillance balloon, which traveled above 60,000 feet – and which Beijing continues to insist was a weather-monitoring device that inadvertently flew off course – the latest object was hovering within commercial aircraft altitudes around 40,000 feet and did not have self-steering capabilities.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Friday pushed back on the notion that any political considerations prompted Biden to order this latest craft be shot down.
“The predominant reason driving the president’s decision was a safety-of-flight issue,” Kirby told reporters at the White House. “This thing did not appear to be self-maneuvering. Therefore, at the mercy of prevailing winds, it was much less predictable.”
Kirby would not say the latest object was a balloon or that it belonged to China or any other country. He did, however, compare it to the last surveillance balloon with a payload the size of two or three city buses, saying the latest object had a payload roughly the size of a car. Kirby said much of the debris fell on land or on frozen waterways, making recovery much easier than the ongoing efforts off the coast of South Carolina to retrieve the remnants of the balloon.
When asked if the latest device was not a balloon, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder demurred, saying, “Considering the fact we’re still assessing the object, I don’t want to get into characterizing it.”
Biden has faced heavy condemnation for not shooting down the last balloon earlier from Republicans and Democratic members of Congress, particularly those from states over which that craft flew.
Officials who the Pentagon dispatched to brief lawmakers this week did little to quell continued criticism that Biden did not do enough to protect American airspace from a perceived Chinese threat.
U.S. officials say the last balloon represents a part of a broader Chinese surveillance network that has spied on countries spanning five continents.
Though the Defense Department has declined to provide details about what it knows of the last Chinese aircraft, it has stated it posed no threat to Americans nor did it present an intelligence vulnerability. And officials have suggested that allowing it to continue to traverse the country permitted the U.S. to gather intelligence on Chinese surveillance capabilities.
Ryder told reporters shortly after Kirby spoke that recovery teams have mapped the debris field of the first balloon and had begun recovering pieces of it for further analysis.
Source: US News