Object posing 'reasonable threat' to civilian flights downed near border with Yukon
A U.S. military fighter jet shot down an unknown object flying in U.S. airspace off the coast of Alaska on Friday on orders from U.S. President Joe Biden, White House officials said.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the object was downed because it was flying at about 40,000 feet (about 12,100 metres) and posed a "reasonable threat" to the safety of civilian flights, not because of any knowledge that it was engaged in surveillance. Asked about the object's downing on Friday Biden said, "It was a success."
Kirby described the object as roughly the size of a small car, much smaller than the massive suspected Chinese spy balloon downed by Air Force fighter jets Saturday off the coast of South Carolina after it flew over sensitive military sites across the continental U.S.
The twin downings in such close succession are extraordinary, and reflect heightened concerns over China's surveillance program and public pressure on Biden to take a tough stand against it. Still, there were few answers about the unknown object downed on Friday and the White House drew distinctions between the two episodes.
Officials couldn't say if the unknown object shot down on Friday contained any surveillance equipment, where it came from or what purpose it had.
Object appeared to be unmanned
The Pentagon on Friday declined to provide a more precise description of the object, only saying that U.S. pilots who flew up to observe it determined it didn't appear to be manned. Officials said the object was far smaller than the previous balloon, did not appear to be manoeuvrable and was travelling at a much lower altitude.
Kirby maintained that based on the advice of the Pentagon, Biden believed it posed enough of a concern to have it shot out of the sky — primarily because of the potential risk to civilian aircraft.
"We're going to remain vigilant about our airspace," Kirby said. "The president takes his obligations to protect our national security interests as paramount."
The president was briefed on the object Thursday evening after two fighter jets surveilled it.
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Friday that an F-22 fighter aircraft based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson shot down the object using the same type of missile used to take down the balloon nearly a week ago.
Object shot down near Alaska-Yukon border
The object flew over one of the most desolate places in the country. Few towns dot Alaska's North Slope, with the two apparently closest communities — Deadhorse and Kaktovik — combining for a population of about 300 people.
Unlike the suspected spy balloon, which was downed to live feeds and got U.S. residents looking to the skies, the frigid conditions of northern Alaska at this time of the year mean few people likely saw this object.
Ahead of the the shoot-down, the Federal Aviation Administration restricted flights over a roughly 26-square kilometre area within U.S. airspace off Alaska's Bullen Point, the site of a disused U.S. Air Force radar station on the Beaufort Sea about 210 kilometres from the Alaska-Yukon border, inside the Arctic Circle.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet Friday that he had been briefed and supported the decision to shoot down the object. "Our military and intelligence services will always work together," he said.
This afternoon, an object that violated American airspace was brought down. I was briefed on the matter and supported the decision to take action. Our military and intelligence services will always work together, including through <a href="https://twitter.com/NORADCommand?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@NORADCommand</a>, to keep people safe.
Minister of National Defence Anita Anand confirmed to CBC News in an emailed statement that the object did not cross into Canada, unlike the suspected spy balloon last week that did momentarily travel through Yukon.
The object fell into frigid waters and officials said they expected they would be able to recover debris from the downed device faster than they were able to with last week's massive balloon. Ryder said the object was travelling northeast when it was shot down. He said several U.S. military helicopters have gone out to begin the recovery effort.
Later Friday, the Pentagon said recovery was taking place in a mix of ice and snow. "Units located in Alaska under the direction of U.S. Northern Command, along with the Alaska National Guard, are involved in the response."
The unknown object was shot down in an area with harsh weather conditions and about six and a half hours of daylight at this time of year. Daytime temperatures Friday were about -27 C.
After the object was detected on Thursday, the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) sent F-35s to observe it, a U.S. official said. The military queried U.S. government agencies to make sure the object did not belong to any of them and had confidence it was not a U.S. government or military asset, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive national security matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Because the object was much smaller than the suspected Chinese spy balloon, there were fewer safety concerns about downing it over land, so the decision was made to shoot it down when it was possible. That happened to be over water.
The mystery around what exactly the flying object was lingered late into Friday night. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement saying it was "not a National Weather Service balloon."
"They do not hover," said NOAA spokesperson Scott Smullen.
The development came almost a week after the U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian craft and threatened repercussions.
The Biden administration says the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was shot down was part of a fleet being flown around the world. Officials faced questions from Republicans at two hearings over why the balloon wasn’t taken down sooner.
Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when the balloon was over water. Military officials determined that bringing the balloon down over land from an altitude of about 18,200 metres would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
The balloon was part of a large surveillance program that China has been conducting for "several years," the Pentagon has said.
China responded that it reserved the right to "take further actions" and criticized the U.S. for "an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."
With files from CBC News
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