Military shoots down ‘high altitude object’ over Alaska

A U.S. official said the object was cylindrical and did not appear to have surveillance equipment.

President Joe Biden ordered the military to shoot down a “high altitude object” near Alaska on Friday, marking the second time in less than a week that fighter jets were sent to down an aerial vehicle that had entered U.S. airspace.

White House and Pentagon officials stressed that they still do not have a positive identification of the object or its country of origin, and would not confirm that Friday’s incident was a Chinese-made surveillance balloon like the one that was struck off the coast of South Carolina.

The pilots intercepting the object reported that it had a cylindrical shape and no observable surveillance equipment, a U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss a rapidly changing situation.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Friday the object was flying at 40,000 feet “and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of the civilian flight.” President Joe Biden, following the Pentagon’s recommendation, ordered that the object be shot down.

Kirby said the object was much smaller than the Chinese spy balloon — about the “size of a small car” as opposed to the “two or three buses size” Chinese balloon.

The object was spotted Thursday night and the president was briefed shortly after. According to a senior military official, the military picked up the object using a ground-based radar and F-35 fighter jets to observe it.

On Friday, U.S. Northern Command on Friday scrambled two F-22 fighter jets to intercept the object over northeastern part of Alaska, near Canada. It was shot down around 1:45 p.m. Eastern time. Efforts are underway to attempt to recover the debris where it fell onto a frozen region of territorial waters.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said after the military determined the object was not manned, one of the two F-22 jets fired a Sidewinder missile to take it down. It was the same type of jet and missile that took down the spy balloon last Saturday.

One senior administration official, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that once the military finds whatever is left of the object, a better identification might be possible. “They need to see it up close, it’s so small. We will get more clarity.”

Neither Kirby nor Ryder would venture to guess what the object was, or who launched it. “We don’t have any information that would confirm a stated purpose for this object,” Kirby said.

Kirby said Biden’s primary reason for ordering the military to shoot the object down “was the safety of flight issue.” The Chinese spy balloon last week flew much higher, around 60,000 feet, well above the altitude for commercial air traffic.

Kirby emphasized the differences between this object and the Chinese balloon, noting repeatedly the smaller size of the new object and that it was over water when Biden ordered to shoot it down. The president faced criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for the delay in shooting down the Chinese balloon, which flew over Canada and the U.S. for a week before the fighter jet shot it down over water.

On Friday, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) applauded the military for taking quick action.

“As I’ve been doing for the past week, including in a classified briefing with senior Pentagon officials yesterday, I strongly encouraged the NORTHCOM Cmdr this morning to shoot down this latest unidentified intrusion into Alaska air space. I commend them for doing so today.”

On Friday, the Biden administration unveiled its first official retaliation against Beijing for sending a spy balloon over U.S. territory, adding six Chinese aerospace companies to a commercial blacklist for their support of government surveillance programs.

The Commerce Department announced that U.S. companies would be barred from doing business with the six listed companies unless they receive special licenses.

The Chinese companies were slapped with the designation “for their support to China’s military modernization efforts, specifically the People’s Liberation Army’s aerospace programs including airships and balloons and related materials and components,” the Commerce Department said in a statement. The agency noted that the People’s Liberation Army is using high-altitude balloons “for intelligence and reconnaissance activities.”

Kirby on Friday defended that decision to wait to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon, saying the Pentagon knew the airship’s basic flight path and was able “significantly curtail any intelligence ability that the Chinese could get from the balloon.”

He said the information gleaned from surveilling the balloon did not provide insights for the detection and track of the new object on Friday.

“At this time, all I can tell you is it did not appear to have the ability to independently maneuver,” Kirby said. “We’ll attempt recovery and see what we can learn more from.”

Alexander Ward, Lara Seligman and Gavin Bade contributed to this report.