The U.S. military on Friday took down an object flying over Alaskan airspace days after shooting down a Chinese spy balloon along the South Carolina coast, the White House confirmed.
John Kirby, a national security spokesperson for the White House, said the Defense Department was tracking a “high-altitude object” over Alaska at 40,000 feet that posed “a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight.”
The object was shot down Friday afternoon at President Biden’s direction, Kirby said, and landed in U.S. waters.
“At the direction of the president of the United States, fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully took down a high-altitude airborne object off the northern coast of Alaska at 1:45 Eastern Standard Time today within U.S. sovereign airspace over U.S. territorial water,” Pentagon press secretary Brig Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters in a separate briefing on Friday.
John Kirby says US still collecting information
The government is still collecting information about the object, Kirby said. It is not yet known whether it was operated by another country or if it was privately or commercially owned. Kirby also would not say if the object was a balloon or another device.
“We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now,” he told reporters.
“We don’t understand the full purpose. We don’t have any information that would confirm a stated purpose for this object,” he continued, adding that officials expect to be able to recover the debris.
Ryder said North American Aerospace Defense Command detected the object on ground radar on Thursday and sent up aircraft for further investigation, after which the decision to shoot it down was made.
Biden was briefed on the matter at that time, Kirby said.
The aircraft, an F-22 flying out of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile to take down the object, which was traveling at about 40,000 feet above ground in a northeasterly direction.
Given that the balloon was operating at an altitude that posed “a reasonable threat to civilian air traffic,” the president gave the order to take it down, Ryder said.
The decision to take down the object over Alaska comes six days after Biden directed the military to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon days after it was first discovered floating over the continental United States.
In that case, officials said they wanted to wait until the Chinese spy balloon was over water so that it did not pose a threat to people or property when it crashed down.
Pentagon: Origin of latest object isn’t known
The U.S. does not yet know where the latest object originated from and was hesitant to refer to it as another balloon as it was “about the size of a small car,” nowhere near the size of the high-altitude surveillance balloon taken down off the coast of South Carolina.
NORTHCOM is beginning recovery operations, Ryder added.
Biden drew criticism from Republicans in particular for waiting to shoot down the Chinese balloon last week, with critics claiming it allowed Beijing to collect potentially valuable information in the meantime.
The president in an interview on Thursday said he did not view the incursion of the Chinese balloon as a “major breach,” and he downplayed the potential effects on U.S.-China relations.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski angered by handling of first balloon
Tensions ran high Thursday at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing with defense officials about the balloon that was shot down.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), whose state’s airspace was the first to be breached by the Chinese balloon on Jan. 28, was visibly angry as she questioned the witnesses.
“As an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words but I’m not going to,” she said. “The fact of the matter is, Alaska is the first line of defense for America, right? If you’re going to have Russia coming at you, if you’re going to have China coming at you, we know exactly how they come. They come up and they go over Alaska.”
She later added: “Seems to me the clear message to China is ‘we’ve got free range in Alaska, because they’re going to let us cruise over that.’”
Updated at 3:50 p.m.
Brad Dress contributed.