Rishi Sunak has said the UK will do “whatever it takes” to keep itself safe and that its air force is on standby to take down any unidentified objects or suspected Chinese spy balloons that enter national airspace.
The prime minister’s comments on Monday followed the launch of a security review by defence secretary Ben Wallace after US fighter jets shot down an “unidentified object” over Lake Huron on Sunday.
US officials described the high-altitude unidentified object — the fourth similar object to enter US or Canadian airspace in the past week — as an “octagonal structure” with strings attached.
The Pentagon earlier this month shot down what it said was a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
“The UK and her allies will review what these airspace intrusions means for our security. This development is another sign of how the global threat picture is changing for the worse,” Wallace said on Monday.
The downing of the Chinese spy balloon has escalated tensions between Washington and Beijing. China has said the balloon was conducting meteorological research, but the US says it had multiple antennas for intelligence gathering and was part of a broader surveillance fleet.
US officials have said, however, that, apart from the first balloon, which Beijing has acknowledged as its own, they do not yet know what the other objects are or where they came from. Asked on Sunday, a Pentagon official did not rule out the possibility that they could be extraterrestrial.
Asked whether similar devices had been identified in UK airspace, Sunak said on Monday he could not “comment in detail on national security matters”.
But he added that the UK had a “quick reaction alert force which involves Typhoon planes, which are kept on 24/7 readiness to police our airspace”, and that he had been in constant touch with allies over the incidents.
“I want people to know that we will do whatever it takes to keep the country safe.”
The UK is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence network alongside Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that the security alliance’s defence ministers would also discuss the matter this week.
He characterised the incidents as part of “a pattern where China, but also Russia, are increasing their intelligence and surveillance activities against Nato allies with many different platforms”.
“We see it in cyber and we see it with satellites, more and more satellites, and we see them with balloons,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
Analysts said Wallace’s review, whose findings would probably remain confidential, was part and parcel of usual UK security procedures.
“Straightforward, surely: The UK has an air defence policy against intrusion. Balloons are not new. China spies,” former RAF Air Marshall Edward Stringer wrote on Twitter.
Transport minister Richard Holden suggested earlier on Monday that it was “possible” that Chinese spy balloons had been used within UK airspace. He added that there were likely to be elements in Beijing acting as a “hostile state” and that London had to be “realistic about the threat”.
Asked whether Sunak had excluded the possibility of aliens being involved in the incidents, or if Sunak believed in extraterrestrial life, Downing Street said: “It hasn’t come up yet . . . he’s focused more on terrestrial issues.”
Additional reporting by George Parker