The US military shot down a “high-altitude object” off the coast of Alaska on Friday, White House spokesman John Kirby said, a week after it downed a Chinese spy balloon that was floating in American airspace.
The object, which Kirby said was the “roughly the size of a small car”, passed over land in Alaska before being shot down by a fighter jet on Friday morning local time, falling into frozen waters near the north-east border with Canada.
“The object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” Kirby said. “Out of an abundance of caution and at the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Joe Biden ordered the military to down the object, and they did.”
The discovery of the object comes less than a week after the US shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had been floating for several days in North American airspace. Examination of the balloon from U-2 spy planes while it was airborne revealed that it was equipped with antennas for intelligence gathering.
The US commerce department on Friday put six Chinese groups on the “entity list” — a trade blacklist — in connection with the spy balloon.
It said they were being added to the list because of their role supporting China’s spy balloon programme and other aerospace programmes that the Chinese military uses for intelligence and reconnaissance operations.
“Today’s action demonstrates our concerted efforts to identify and disrupt the PRC’s use of surveillance balloons, which have violated the airspace of the United States and more than 40 countries,” said Matthew Axelrod, a senior commerce official.
The targeted groups included Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation 48th Research Institute, and Dongguan Lingkong Remote Sensing Technology.
The other three entities were Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group, Guangzhou Tian-Hai-Xiang Aviation Technology, and Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group.
US companies are barred from exporting American technology to groups on the list without an export licence, but the commerce department made clear that there would be a “presumption of denial” in these cases.
US officials say they have not determined the origin or ownership of the second flying object, nor what purpose it was intended to serve.
“We do not know who owns it,” Kirby said. “It was much, much smaller than the spy balloon we took down last Saturday.”
He added: “I am not classifying it as a balloon right now. It’s an object. We’re still trying to learn more right now.”
Unlike the Chinese balloon, the latest object did not have a “significant payload”, Kirby said, nor did it appear to be able to have the ability to independently manoeuvre itself.
He said Biden’s primary motivation in ordering the object to be downed was a possible threat to civilian flights, adding that it was at a lower altitude than the spy balloon shot down last week, which was flying at 65,000 feet.
The US learned of the object on Thursday evening, Kirby said, and used fighter aircraft to fly around it and determine that the object was not manned before shooting it down.
Air Force General Patrick Ryder said the US expects to be able to recover the debris, which fell into territorial waters after an F-22 fighter jet downed the object using an AIM-9X sidewinder missile.
The water being frozen may make it easier to recover the object, Kirby said.
Biden faced criticism last week from Republican lawmakers, who said his administration should have shot down the Chinese spy balloon before it was able to fly across the US.
Military leaders had advised against doing so in order to avoid potential danger to people on the ground, and defence officials have said the extended time in the air allowed them to collect intelligence about it.