US officials believe the two aerial objects shot down by US fighter jets in recent days were high-altitude balloons, but “much smaller” than the one brought down over the Atlantic last week, according to the top Democrat in Congress.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said he had been briefed by Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, on Saturday night after an F-22 shot down an unidentified object at 40,000 feet over the Canadian territory of Yukon. On Friday, the US military shot down a similar object over Alaska.
“They believe they were [balloons], yes,” Schumer told ABC, referring to the assessment of US officials. “But much smaller than the first one.”
US officials have described the first balloon as originating in China and used for surveillance. They have not publicly identified the origin of the two aerial objects shot down later.
Asked about the briefing that Sullivan gave Schumer and other lawmakers on the two latest incidents, a National Security Council spokesperson said: “These objects did not closely resemble, and were much smaller than, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] balloon and we will not definitively characterise them until we can recover the debris, which we are working on.”
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, said Canadian teams were working to recover the object brought down on Saturday, which officials described as “cylindrical” in shape.
“There’s still much to know about it. That’s why the analysis of this object is going to be very important,” Trudeau said.
The Chinese balloon incident has already led to a deterioration in US-China relations, which had sunk to their lowest level since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1979.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a trip to China at the last minute during which he was to meet President Xi Jinping. China has criticised the US for downing the balloon, which it says was a civilian vessel conducting meteorological research.
Schumer called for China to cancel the balloon programme.
“I think the Chinese were humiliated. I think the Chinese were caught lying. And I think it’s a real step back for them,” the senator 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.”
Some Democrats were uneasy that the Biden administration was not more forthcoming with information.
“I sort of see a pattern as I looked at social media this morning. All of a sudden, massive speculation about alien invasions and, you know, additional Chinese actions or Russian action,” Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, told NBC.
“In the absence of information, people’s anxiety leads them into potentially destructive areas. So, I do hope that very soon the administration has a lot more information for all of us on what’s going on.”
In an indication of the jitters the incidents have caused, the aviation regulator closed airspace over Montana on Saturday and again over Lake Michigan on Sunday as a precaution before reopening both without taking further action.
The episodes have also triggered a debate about whether the US military needs to invest more to improve its capacity to detect objects.
Mike Turner, chair of the House Intelligence committee and an Ohio Republican, told CNN the US lacked “adequate radar systems” and “integrated missile defence” systems. “We really have to declare that we’re going to defend our airspace and then we need to invest.”
The Biden administration has said the Chinese balloon entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28. But officials have not made clear if the US detected the object earlier, raising questions about the military’s aerial awareness capabilities.
General Glen VanHerck, the US officer who heads North American Aerospace Defense Command, revealed this week that the military had not detected four previous Chinese balloon flights over the US — three during the Trump administration and one early under Biden — in real time.
US intelligence agencies later determined that the balloons had flown over parts of the US without the Pentagon realising.
“We did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” VanHerck said.
Speaking before Congress last week, Melissa Dalton, the top Pentagon official for home defence, said the US would use information gleaned from monitoring the spy balloon over the US and also from recovered debris to get a better understanding of Chinese capabilities and work out “what we need to do going forward”.
Dalton added that the latest defence budget included money for capabilities that would help the US tackle the issue.