China? Aliens? Plenty of questions, few answers after U.S. shoots down another unidentified object

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The U.S. and Canada awoke Sunday asking high-stakes questions: How safe are the skies over North America? Is China involved? And, perhaps half-jokingly, is this the start of an alien invasion?

Top U.S. lawmakers indicated Sunday that two unidentified flying objects shot down over Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory on Friday and Saturday, respectively, appeared to be balloons — though much smaller than the massive Chinese spy craft that traveled over the U.S. two weeks ago before it was shot down off the South Carolina coast.

The Biden administration has not said definitively that the objects were balloons, nor have officials publicly said the craft came from China. Military officials, however, cautioned against drawing any firm conclusions until the wreckage is collected and analyzed, even as lawmakers openly postulated that Beijing is likely to blame.

Another high-altitude object was shot down later Sunday over Lake Huron bordering Michigan and Canada, U.S. military officials said. It is believed to be the same object that was first detected over Montana late Saturday night and then slipped from radar view before military personnel picked it up over Wisconsin early Sunday morning.

The incidents have combined to fuel fascination and fear among the American public, with rampant speculation over the weekend that the craft may be part of Chinese spying operations, a Russian psychological warfare campaign or even the first salvo of an extraterrestrial invasion.

“I haven’t ruled anything out at this point,” Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told reporters during a hastily arranged press conference on Sunday evening after being asked directly whether aliens are behind the objects.

SEE ALSO: House Dem knocks Biden for not being more ‘forthcoming’ on Chinese spy balloons

By historical standards, the military’s response has been stunning. It is exceedingly rare, perhaps unprecedented, for U.S. military aircraft to shoot down objects in North American skies, let alone four in just over one week.

Gen. VanHerck said he believes this is the first time NORAD has taken “kinetic action” against an object in North American airspace.

After scrambling fighter jets Saturday night, U.S. military personnel did not find an object in the skies over Montana that correlated with the “radar anomaly” that they detected. But the incident added yet another layer of drama to an almost unbelievable situation.

“What’s gone on in the last, you know, two weeks or so, 10 days, has been nothing short of craziness,” Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, told ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday. “The military needs to have a plan to not only determine what’s out there, but determine the dangers that go with it.”

The Biden administration has faced withering criticism for its handling of the first Chinese spy balloon, which was spotted over Montana and allowed to travel across the entire country before being shot down on Feb. 4. China said the balloon was on a civilian mission to collect weather data, but the U.S. contended its trip across sensitive sites from the Canadian border to the Atlantic Coast was a spy mission.

President Biden gave the order to shoot down the balloon once it was over water and did not pose a safety risk to civilians on the ground. Critics said the decision to wait so long showed weakness and sent a signal to Beijing that the U.S. would allow foreign craft to travel through its airspace unimpeded.

SEE ALSO: House intel panel chair after 3rd downed object: ‘Trigger happy’ is better than being ‘permissive’

U.S. officials said that since the initial Chinese balloon incident, the Pentagon has adjusted its radar parameters and is now much more aggressively searching for unknown objects in North American skies.

Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, told reporters Sunday night that the U.S. is “more closely scrutinizing our airspace” after the Chinese balloon traveled overhead.

“We have acted out of an abundance of caution to protect our security and interests,” she said.

But some lawmakers say the administration has swung to the opposite extreme.

Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Sunday that the Biden administration appeared eager to take down UFOs in North American airspace. The apparent change in strategy was welcome, he said, but he questioned why quick action had not been taken after learning of the original Chinese spy balloon.

“I would prefer them to be trigger-happy than to be permissive,” Mr. Turner said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But we’re going to have to see whether or not this is just the administration trying to change headlines.”

Some Democrats also say the administration has been too guarded with information.

“I have real concerns about why the administration is not being more forthcoming with everything that it knows,” Rep. James Himes, Connecticut Democrat, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “But part of the problem here is that both the second and the third objects were shot down in very remote areas. So my guess is that there’s just not a lot of information out there yet to share.”

The administration acted quickly in casting the first balloon as a Chinese spy craft. Administration officials have subsequently talked in depth about the extent of Chinese aerial surveillance programs around the world, including the fact that such balloons have apparently flown over at least 40 countries and are part of a concerted effort to gain knowledge about U.S. military capabilities.

The U.S. and Canada were far more tight-lipped after the incidents Friday and Saturday. On Friday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said U.S. planes took down a car-sized object over Alaskan coastal waters.

“Out of an abundance of caution, and at the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Biden ordered the military to down the object,” he told reporters.

Pentagon officials revealed little detail other than saying the craft was unmanned.

On Saturday, U.S. fighter jets acting on orders from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shot down a second craft over the Yukon Territory. The prime minister had spoken by phone with Mr. Biden.

Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said the UFO was “cylindrical” in shape but disclosed little else about its nature.

There was little immediate detail about the Sunday shoot-down. Michigan lawmakers confirmed the military operation.

“I’ve been in contact with DoD regarding operations across the Great Lakes region today. The US military has decommissioned another ‘object’ over Lake Huron,” Rep. Jack Bergman, Michigan Republican, said in a post on Twitter. “I appreciate the decisive action by our fighter pilots. The American people deserve far more answers than we have.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, Michigan Democrat, confirmed the incident in tweets of her own.

“The object has been downed by pilots from the US Air Force and National Guard. Great work by all who carried out this mission both in the air and back at headquarters. We’re all interested in exactly what this object was and its purpose,” she said. “As long as these things keep traversing the US and Canada, I’ll continue to ask for Congress to get a full briefing based on our exploitation of the wreckage.”

Earlier Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, offered the first real glimpse behind the curtain of the U.S. and Canadian investigation. Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Schumer indicated that the objects shot down Friday and Saturday were also spy balloons, and he seemed to suggest that they also came from China.

“They believe they were, yes, but much smaller than the first one,” he said, adding that the two craft were flying at about 40,000 feet, which posed a danger to commercial air traffic.

The larger Chinese balloon was flying at about 60,000 feet as it traveled across the U.S.

The object shot down Sunday was traveling at about 20,000 feet, officials said. Mr. Bergman told Fox News that he had been briefed by the Pentagon and that the latest object was octagonal in shape and was shot down by U.S. F-16 fighter jets using Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. He said it went into Lake Huron with no damage to people or property.

But there are far more questions than answers about the makeup of the craft. So far, it’s not clear how the objects are able to even stay in the air.

“I am not able to characterize how they stay aloft,” Gen. VanHerck said. “It could be a gaseous type of balloon inside a structure, or it could be some type of propulsion system. But clearly they’re able to stay aloft.”

So far, military personnel have seen no clear indication that the craft are coming from China.

Some key lawmakers, however, have quickly turned attention to Beijing. For example, Mr. Schumer on Sunday argued that the entire balloon saga has been deeply embarrassing for Beijing.

“Look, I think the Chinese were humiliated. I think the Chinese were caught lying. And I think it’s a real step back for them, yes,” he said. “I think they’re probably going to have to get rid of it or do something because they look really bad. And they’re not just doing the United States. This is a crew of balloons. We saw one in South America. They’ve probably been all over the world.”

On Sunday, the U.S. and Canada were gathering evidence across the continent. Separate crews were working off the South Carolina coast, in Alaskan waters and in Canada’s Yukon to recover debris from the three shoot-downs. Crews will likely try to recover wreckage from the Lake Huron area.

Canada is taking the lead in the Yukon recovery efforts.

“As Canadian authorities conduct recovery operations to help our countries learn more about the object, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be working closely with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement late Saturday.

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