U.S. fighter aircraft shot down an unmanned “high altitude object” in U.S. airspace off the northern coast of Alaska on Friday afternoon, White House and Pentagon officials said.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, when asked if he could confirm reports of another Chinese spy balloon entering U.S. airspace, told reporters that the Pentagon began tracking the new object over Alaskan airspace in the last 24 hours.
“The object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” he said. “Out of an abundance of caution, and at the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Biden ordered the military to down the object.”
Pressed on the specifics of the object, a Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters that it was about the size of a small car — much smaller than the Chinese surveillance balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast last Saturday.
Defense officials said that U.S. military personnel identified the craft by radar on Thursday.
It’s not yet clear where the object came from, and officials would not speculate on what its purpose may have been.
“At this point, we don’t know the origin of the object,” Gen. Ryder said at a Pentagon briefing. “We will know more once we’re able to potentially recover some of those materials, but the primary concern, again, was the potential hazard to civilian flight.”
“Civilian aircraft operate at a variety of ranges up to 40,000 to 45,000 feet, so there was a reasonable concern this represented a threat or a potential hazard” to air traffic, he said.
U.S. Northern Command coordinated the shootdown operation with assistance from Alaska National Guard, FAA and FBI personnel. An F-22 fighter jet fired a single AIM-9 missile to take down the object, Gen. Ryder said.
Military troops are now recovering the object’s remnants from Alaskan coastal waters.
Gen. Ryder stressed the differences between this object and the spy balloon taken down last week, including the size disparity. Last week’s balloon also crossed the U.S. at altitudes of about 60,000 feet — much higher than the object shot down Friday and therefore posing much less immediate risk to civilian aircraft.
The Biden administration has faced withering criticism for allowing the spy balloon to travel across the entire U.S. before shooting it down off the Atlantic coast. Officials said they waited until the craft could be shot down without posing a threat to civilians on the ground. Critics say the decision to wait so long showed weakness and sent a signal to Beijing that America will allow a foreign craft to travel through its airspace.
Gen. Ryder did not address questions Friday about whether that criticism or political pressure factored into Mr. Biden’s decision to shoot down the most recent object so quickly.
Lawmakers of both parties praised the decision to take out the object quickly.
“I appreciate the Biden administration learning from its prior inaction and acting quickly to address this latest airspace incursion, and I look forward to further updates about this incident,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican and ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “However, I still have many outstanding questions regarding last week’s incident. Today’s decisive action is a reminder that it is even more important that we understand fully why the first balloon was allowed to traverse the entirety of our sovereign airspace uncontested.”
Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the president deserves credit.
“Glad to see the president act swiftly on this new intrusion to our airspace,” he said in a Twitter post. “I’m looking forward to more details becoming public as the recovery and investigation continue.”