The United States shot down a “high-altitude” object as it flew over Alaska near the northern Canadian border on Friday, White House and Pentagon officials confirmed amid ongoing concerns over Chinese surveillance balloons flying over North America.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby would not say if the object was a balloon or what entity owned it. He said the object, about the size of a “small car,” was flying at 40,000 feet and posed a “reasonable threat” to civilian aircraft.
Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the object was flying in a “northeasterly” direction when it was taken down by a U.S. F-22 fighter jet.
President Joe Biden gave the order to shoot down the object “out of an abundance of caution” and at the Pentagon’s recommendation, Kirby added.
The incident came a week after U.S. and Canadian officials first confirmed a Chinese surveillance balloon had flown over Canada and across the continental U.S. over the course of several days. The balloon was ultimately shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.
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Kirby said the object shot down Friday was “much, much smaller” than the Chinese balloon and was not carrying a “significant payload.” Efforts are underway to recover the object, which was first detected Thursday evening.
Ryder said the origin and capabilities of the object won’t be known until it is recovered and assessed. He was careful to not say whether the object was a balloon or had any surveillance capabilities.
He also denied suggestions the Pentagon was bowing to political pressure by shooting this object down as soon as it was detected over Alaska. Some Republicans have criticized Biden for not ordering to shoot down the balloon sooner, which the Pentagon has defended by citing the potential risk to safety on the ground.
“We’re going to judge each of these objects on its own merits,” Ryder said.
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Ahead of the the shoot-down, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration restricted flights over a roughly 25-square kilometre area within U.S. airspace off Alaska’s Bullen Point, the site of a disused U.S. Air Force radar station on the Beaufort Sea about 160 kilometres from the Canadian border.
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Speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, Defence Minister Anita Anand did not say where the earlier balloon was when it first entered Canadian airspace, or what locations it passed over and for how long it was over Canada before heading south.
The U.S. navy and coast guard are working to recover pieces of the downed balloon for analysis and they’re working to determine if it collected any intelligence from either country, Anand said.
Anand was in Washington with other Canadian ministers this week for several bilateral meetings with their U.S. counterparts. She met with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday.
Austin brought up the balloon in introductory remarks at the meeting and said the balloon incident underscored the importance of pursuing upgrades to Norad, the jointly commanded continental defence system that experts warn is out of date.
“The United States and Canada recently worked together through Norad to track (China’s) high-altitude surveillance balloon that violated the sovereignty of both of our countries,” Austin said.
“That co-ordination underscored the importance of our efforts and the need for continued investment in Norad modernization on both sides.”
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The balloon’s sighting has reignited tensions between the U.S. and China and raised renewed fears of foreign surveillance and interference by Beijing.
The balloon was part of a large surveillance program that China has been conducting for “several years,” the Pentagon has said.
China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the U.S. for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
— with files from Aaron D’Andrea and the Associated Press
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