US shoots down 'high-altitude object' over Alaskan airspace
The Pentagon shot down an unknown object flying in US airspace off the coast of Alaska on Friday on orders from President Joe Biden, White House officials said.
The object was flying at about 13,000 metres and posed a “reasonable threat” to the safety of civilian flights, said John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesman. He described the object as roughly the size of a small car. Commercial airliners and private jets can fly as high as 13,700 metres.
Asked about the object's downing, Biden said only that “It was a success.”
It was the second time in a week US officials had downed some type of flying object over the United States. On Saturday fighter jets shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
White House officials drew significant differences between the two episodes. Kirby said it wasn't yet known who owned the object, and he did not say it was a balloon. Officials also couldn't say if there was any surveillance equipment on it. He also didn't know where it came from or its purpose.
Kirby maintained that Biden, based on the advice of the Pentagon, believed it posed enough of a concern to shoot it out of the sky — primarily because of the potential risk to civilian aircraft.
“We’re going to remain vigilant about our airspace," Kirby said. "The president takes his obligations to protect our national security interests as paramount."
The president was briefed on the presence of the object Thursday evening after two fighter jets surveilled it.
Kirby said fight pilots visually examining the object ascertained that it was not manned.
The object fell into frigid waters and officials expected they could recover debris faster than from last week's massive balloon.
Ahead of the shoot-down, the Federal Aviation Administration restricted flights over a roughly 26-square kilometre area within US airspace off Alaska's Bullen Point, the site of a disused US Air Force radar station on the Beaufort Sea about 210 kilometres from the Canadian border, inside the Arctic Circle.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet Friday that he had been briefed and supported the decision. “Our military and intelligence services will always work together," he said.
After the object was detected Thursday, NORAD — North American Aerospace Defense Command —sent F-35s to observe it, a US official said, adding that the military queried US government agencies to make sure it did not belong to any of them and had confidence it was not a US government or military asset. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive national security matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Because it was much smaller than the suspected Chinese spy balloon, there were fewer safety concerns about downing it over land, so the decision was made to shoot it down when it was possible. That happened over water.
The mystery around what exactly the flying object was lingered late into Friday night. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement saying it was “not a National Weather Service balloon.”
"They do not hover," said NOAA spokesperson Scott Smullen.
The development came almost a week after the US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian craft and threatened repercussions.
Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticised the US for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”