U.S. downs unidentified object over Lake Huron, third destroyed since Chinese spy balloon
Defense officials on Sunday night declined to identify what the three objects shot down over the weekend might be.
The U.S. military shot down an unidentified object flying above Michigan on Sunday, making it the fourth airborne object downed by American forces in just over a week.
Defense officials on Sunday night declined to identify what the three objects shot down over the weekend might be, raising questions over the threat the objects could have represented to civilians across North America, what the purpose of the objects was, and why there has been a rash of detections and responses with fighter planes and guided missiles.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, said he was certain that the initial episode, the downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon off the U.S. East Coast on Feb. 4, “was clearly a balloon. These are objects. I’m not able to categorize how they stay aloft.” The general also declined to rule out any possibility, including whether the objects were extraterrestrial in origin.
After the general’s remarks, a Defense official who requested anonymity to speak about a developing situation said that there is “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”
In terms of the Chinese balloon, said Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, “we had a basis and intelligence to know definitively that its point of origin was the People’s Republic of China.” No such certainty exists with the subsequent three objects.
After the initial episode, NORAD shifted its approach to monitoring the airspace over North America, Dalton added. That effort involves “more closely scrutinizing our airspace … including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week,” she said.
The latest object was first detected on Saturday at 4:45 p.m. over Canada. It entered U.S. airspace a short time later, eventually falling off the radar over Montana and reappearing over Wisconsin. By that time, U.S. F-16 and Canadian F-18 fighter planes were scrambled to intercept it. One F-16 knocked it down with a Sidewinder missile over Lake Huron, where it likely fell into Canadian waters, VanHerck said.
President Joe Biden gave the order to take out the object based on the recommendations of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and military leadership, according to a Defense Department statement.
Although military officials did not assess it to be a threat to anything on the ground, the object’s path and altitude raised concerns, including that it could pose a risk to civil aviation, the officials said.
“Today, a high-altitude object was detected in U.S. airspace over Lake Huron. NORAD launched Canadian and U.S. aircraft to investigate and the object was taken down in U.S. airspace by U.S. aircraft,” Canada’s defense minister, Anita Anand, said in a statement. “We unequivocally support this action, and we’ll continue to work with the U.S. and NORAD to protect North America.”
Two U.S. House members from Michigan, Republican Rep. Jack Bergman and Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, confirmed earlier on Sunday that pilots from the Air Force and National Guard had taken out the object above Lake Huron.
“We’ll know more about what this was in the coming days, but for now, be assured that all parties have been laser-focused on it from the moment it traversed our waters,” Slotkin said on Twitter. She added in a later tweet: “We’re all interested in exactly what this object was and its purpose.”
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) tweeted: “I’m glad the object was neutralized over Lake Huron and I’ll continue pressing DoD for transparency.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaking after receiving a briefing from national security adviser Jake Sullivan on the objects from Friday and Saturday, said on Sunday that U.S. national security officials believed them to be balloons.
“They believe they were, yes, but much smaller than the — than the one — the first one,” Schumer said on ABC’s “This Week.” Both objects shot down this week flew at 40,000 feet, so “immediately it was determined” they posed a threat to commercial aircraft, which fly at the same level, Schumer said.
A Pentagon spokesperson wouldn’t go as far as Schumer on Sunday.
“These objects shot down on Friday and Saturday were objects and did not closely resemble the [People’s Republic of China] balloon,” Sabrina Singh said. “When we can recover the debris, we will have more for you.”
Following criticism for moving too slowly in taking down the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the U.S. this month, the Biden administration downed an unidentified cylindrical object over Alaskan airspace on Friday, and — after discussion with Canada — shot down a separate object violating Canadian airspace Saturday.
Schumer continued to defend the Biden administration’s timing on shooting down the first balloon as a different situation. That balloon crossed North America before an F-22 downed it off the coast of the Carolinas.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last week that the first balloon “was above where flight operations happen, and so any debris would have passed through national airspace.”
“We got enormous intelligence information from surveilling the balloon as it went over the United States,” Schumer said Sunday, adding that the U.S. would “probably be able to piece together” the entire balloon to learn more.
Asked by host George Stephanopoulos whether China gained intelligence regardless, Schumer said, “They could have been getting it anyway, but we have to know what they’re doing.”
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, called for an aggressive stance on taking down airborne objects on Sunday.
“I would prefer them to be trigger-happy than to be permissive,” Turner said of the Biden administration, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But we’re going to have to see whether or not this is just the administration trying to change headlines.”
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said on Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he had “real concerns about why the administration is not more forthcoming.”
“My guess is there’s not a lot of information out there yet to share,” Himes said.
While such objects “at times” have gone through U.S. airspace, the current scale is unprecedented, Turner said.
“It’s certainly a new, recent development that you have China being so aggressive in entering other countries’ airspace and doing so for clear intentions to spy, with very sophisticated equipment,” he said.
U.S. radar sensors have primarily been concerned with threats that don’t look like balloons, but may find more now that they’re looking out for them, Himes said.
Turner said the episodes spoke to a larger issue of airspace defense for the U.S., including “inadequate” radar and a lack of an integrated missile defense system.
“This is a turning point where we need to discuss — this is a threat, and how do we respond to it?” he said.