The White House has said there is no evidence yet that three objects shot down over North America in recent days were conducting surveillance, but added it could not rule out the possibility of espionage.
John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, said President Joe Biden had ordered the shooting down of the unidentified objects — over Alaska, Canada’s Yukon territory, and Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes in the US Midwest — due to the risk to civilian aircraft and because he could not rule out that they were spying over North America.
“Their altitudes were considerably lower than the Chinese high-altitude balloon and did pose a threat to civilian commercial air traffic,” Kirby said, explaining the decision to strike the objects with air-to-air missiles. “And while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out.”
At a media briefing in Canada on Monday, General Paul Prévost, director of staff for the Canadian Strategic Joint Staff, said the object shot down on Sunday was a “suspected balloon”. His comment came after General Glen VanHerck, the head of the joint US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), said he was not prepared to describe the targets as balloons at this point.
Prévost added that the US and Canada first detected the suspected balloon when it was over Southern Alberta, and suggested the military was trying to determine the origin of the object before it entered Canadian airspace.
One person familiar with the US assessment said the Pentagon had concluded that two of the three objects appeared to have been balloons.
The shooting down of the three unidentified aerial objects came after an F-22 jet shot down a large Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina on February 4 after it had flown over the US continent and loitered over sensitive military sites. Washington insists the craft, which carried a payload the size of three school buses, was a surveillance balloon. Beijing claims it was a civilian airship conducting meteorological research.
Kirby rejected Chinese claims that the US flew 10 high-altitude balloons through its airspace last year. Asked if the US was flying any other craft over China, he said: “We’re not flying surveillance balloons over China [and] I’m not aware of any other craft that was flying over into Chinese airspace.”
Speaking about the objects shot down since Friday, Kirby said the US was still trying to assess what they were.
“We all need to be humble . . . in terms of what our ability is to positively identify stuff from fighter aircraft that are going several 100 miles an hour past, essentially, in terms of relative motion, a stationary object that was not very big,” he said, before later adding: “We don’t know who owns them.”
US officials say one reason Norad appears to be detecting more objects that pose a potential threat is because the military has recalibrated its radars to be more sensitive following the incursion by the Chinese spy balloon.
Kirby said the US and Canada would learn more about the three latest objects after they had recovered debris from them. But he cautioned that the salvage operations were hard because they fell into “pretty remote, difficult areas to reach”.
He added Biden had created an inter-agency team to examine the broader policy implications of “unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks”. He said the president had also told top officials to share information with international counterparts and solicit their insight.
On Sunday, VanHerck said the downing of the objects was the first time Norad had taken “kinetic” action over North America.
Kirby said the US was continuing a salvage operation off the coast of South Carolina and had recovered parts of the Chinese balloon in addition to some of the electronics that were housed in its payload.
Canadian and US officials have said that they have not recovered debris from any of the three objects that were shot down since Friday.
Sean McGills, executive director of the Canadian Federal Policing Strategic Management, said conditions in the Yukon were “treacherous” and that the salvage operation in Lake Huron was also facing very tough weather conditions.
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