A new “high-altitude airborne object” was shot down over Canada’s Yukon territory, senior U.S. and Canadian officials said Saturday evening, the latest in what has become a string of responses to unusual aerial craft over North America.
“I spoke with President Biden this afternoon,” Trudeau tweeted. “Canadian Forces will now recover and analyze the wreckage of the object.”
The shoot-down in Canadian airspace marks the third time within a week that an American F-22 has taken down a mysterious craft. In the first case, a Chinese airship that the Pentagon said had surveillance capabilities was shot down on Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina, after initially being spotted off the coast of Alaska on Jan. 28. That was followed Friday by another fighter jet shooting down what the Defense Department also described as a “high-altitude object” near the North Slope of Alaska.
The incidents have alarmed U.S. lawmakers and, in the first case, prompted the Biden administration to defend whether it was doing enough to protect American airspace.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Saturday night temporarily restricted flights in northern Montana near the city of Havre, deeming it “national defense airspace.” Later, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said that it had “detected a radar anomaly and sent fighter aircraft to investigate,” but that it “did not identify any object to correlate to the radar hits.”
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, on Friday rejected the notion that U.S. officials had altered their decision-making as a result of political pressure, saying they would “judge each of these on its merits.”
Ryder said in a statement on Saturday that after a call between Trudeau and Biden, the president authorized U.S. pilots to shoot down the object over the Yukon. It was first detected Friday evening by NORAD, an organization that includes both U.S. and Canadian military personnel and is responsible for safeguarding North America’s skies.
The object was monitored Friday night by two F-22 Raptors dispatched from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, with the Alaska Air National Guard providing refueling aircraft and “taking time to characterize the nature of the object.”
Monitoring continued Saturday as the craft crossed into Canadian airspace, Ryder said, with Canadian CF-18 fighters and CP-140 maritime patrol craft joining the effort.
The object over Canada was taken out with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile following coordination that included a discussion between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Canadian Minister of Defense Anita Anand, Ryder said. He added that the FBI will work closely with Canadian authorities to learn more about the object.
Anand said during a news briefing that the object was similar to the one shot down off the Carolina coast earlier this month “though smaller in size and cylindrical in nature.”
The White House said in a statement on Saturday night that Biden had been “continually briefed by his national security team” since the latest object was detected.
The incursions in the past week have changed how analysts receive and interpret information from radars and sensors, a U.S. official said Saturday, partly addressing a key question of why so many objects have recently surfaced.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that sensory equipment absorbs a lot of raw data, and filters are used so humans and machines can make sense of what is collected. But that process always runs the risk of leaving out something important, the official said.
“We basically opened the filters,” the official added, much like a car buyer unchecking boxes on a website to broaden the parameters of what can be searched. That change does not yet fully answer what is going on, the official cautioned, and whether stepping back to look at more data is yielding more hits — or if these latest incursions are part of a more deliberate action by an unknown country or adversary.
Officials have used a particular car — a Volkswagen Beetle — to describe the rough size of the objects shot down Friday in Alaska and Saturday in Canada. But while they are similar in size, “they are slightly different in profile,” the official said.
The pilots over Canada had more time to observe the object compared with Friday’s encounter, leaving pilots to have various interpretations of what they were able to see. The object was shot down in a rugged and remote area, the official said.
“All of the objects are similar in certain ways and then dramatically different in certain ways. What we don’t yet understand is what sorts of technology are in there,” the official said. “Really capable technology can be very small and portable. So the size doesn’t tell us a whole lot.”
The official said the current U.S. assessment is the objects are not military threats.
U.S. military officials said searches continued Saturday near the north Alaskan town of Deadhorse for the object shot down Friday, and off the coast of South Carolina for the suspected Chinese surveillance airship that made a cross-country journey.
“Arctic weather, including wind chill, snow, and limited daylight, are a factor in this operation, and personnel will adjust recovery operations to maintain safety,” U.S. military officials said of the object shot down over Alaska. “Recovery activities are occurring on sea ice.”
Military officials said they had no new details to provide about the origin, capabilities or intended purpose of the object shot down over Alaska. Defense officials said its remnants landed in a mix of snow and ice near Prudhoe Bay, a community of about 2,000 that is home to North America’s largest oil field. The National Weather Service issued an advisory early Saturday morning, warning that wind chills in the region could reach minus-55 degrees.
Military personnel in helicopters and an HC-130 search-and-rescue plane immediately began looking for pieces. While the object came down off Alaska’s northern coast, the water was frozen, complicating any effort to recover the craft by boat.
The object was first spotted Thursday at an altitude of about 40,000 feet and traveling northeast across the state, Pentagon officials said. Two F-35s from Eielson Air Force Base in central Alaska were dispatched to assess what the object was, and two F-22s from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage were sent up Friday to shoot it down.
John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said Biden was notified of the situation Thursday night and, on a recommendation from the Pentagon, ordered it to be shot down Friday. At such an altitude, he said, it posed a risk to civilian air travel.
The suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that traversed the continental United States — which was soaring at an altitude above 60,000 feet and had a payload roughly the size of three buses — was first spotted by the U.S. government off the coast of Alaska on Jan. 28. Gen. Glen VanHerck, who oversees NORAD, said in the aftermath of that incident that he did not initially shoot the balloon down because it showed no hostile intent.
The Chinese airship was first detected near the Aleutian Islands. It crossed above mainland Alaska and into Canada before appearing over the continental United States, first in northern Idaho on Jan. 30 and then in Montana the following day.
The administration weighed shooting it down then, and even temporarily stopping flights in and out of the airport in Billings. Biden has said that his advisers talked him out of shooting down the craft in Montana, fearful that falling debris could harm civilians and property on the ground.
Administration officials also have said that by allowing the Chinese craft to traverse the country, military officials had days to observe it and gather intelligence that has informed their understanding of what they now say is a sprawling surveillance program overseen by the People’s Liberation Army. The shoot-down over water, they said, also would aid in collection.
Those explanations have not appeased lawmakers, however. During a Senate hearing on Thursday, Republicans and Democrats pressed senior defense officials about why they had not acted sooner to thwart the Chinese balloon incursion and whether they have taken appropriate measures to enforce the boundaries of U.S. airspace.
“I don’t want a damn balloon going over the United States when we could have taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
The balloon shot down last weekend fell into the Atlantic Ocean, landing in relatively shallow water measuring about 50 feet deep. Salvage efforts, U.S. officials said, are ongoing.
More on the flying objects shot down over U.S., Canada
The latest: U.S. fighter jets have shot four objects out of the sky over North America this month. The first object, a balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, was Chinese. Biden said Thursday the three other objects did not so far appear to have connections to foreign surveillance programs.
The first balloon: The first object was linked by the U.S. intelligence community to a vast surveillance program run by the People’s Liberation Army. Here’s a timeline of the balloon’s journey across the United States and photos of the recovery.
The response from China: China’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. has sent at least 10 unsanctioned balloons into Chinese airspace since last year. China accused the United States of an “overreaction” and reiterated claims that the airship was a civilian vessel that drifted off course.
Why use a spy balloon? Spy balloons “offer a few advantages over the use of satellites or drones,” James Rogers, an academic at Cornell, tells us. The Defense Department told Congress that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace before, and a top U.S. general said past incursions by Chinese balloons went undetected by the Pentagon.