(AFP) US defense forces shot down a new object flying over Lake Huron at high altitude on Sunday (12), two lawmakers and the Pentagon said, the latest case of flying devices in North America, putting officials in Ottawa and Washington on alert.
President Joe Biden, on the “recommendation of the military command,” gave the order as a “precaution,” a government official said, before adding that the object – described as an octagonal structure from which strings hang – did not pose a “military threat” but rather a risk to civil aviation.
The U.S. aerospace command (Norad) controlled the trajectory of the object and made the decision to shoot it down over Lake Huron “to prevent it from hitting people on the ground and at the same time to increase the chances that it would be recovered,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Under Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security Melissa Dalton cited “contacts with the People’s Republic of China about the balloon,” without explaining the nature of the conversation.
Although U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requested a meeting with the Chinese counterpart shortly after Washington shot down a balloon from the country last week, Beijing confirmed Thursday that it rejected the proposal and called the U.S. government’s decision to shoot down the device “irresponsible.”
“The US government has not created the right environment for dialogue and a conversation between the armies,” the Chinese defense ministry said in a statement.
This was the fourth “object” that the U.S. government shot down in less than 10 days while flying over its territory o or Canada.
“The object was shot down by pilots from the United States Air Force and National Guard,” tweeted Elissa Slotkin, a congresswoman for Michigan, the state through which Lake Huron passes to the north and east. Another Michigan lawmaker, Jack Bergman, said the military “disabled” an object over Lake Huron.
“The American people deserve more answers than we have right now,” Jack Bergman added on Twitter, which reflects the growing questions in the country and in the political class about these events.
Washington considers that the first downed object, a balloon, was part of a fleet of devices that Beijing sent to 40 countries for spying purposes.
The Chinese government assured, however, that it was a device used for research, mainly meteorological.
Washington shot down two more flying objects, without specifying the details: one on Friday over Alaska and another on Saturday over Canada.
In a sign that authorities are on high alert, part of the airspace over Lake Michigan in the northern US was temporarily closed on Sunday for “national defense” reasons, according to the US civil aviation regulator (FAA).
“These restrictions were intended to ensure the safety of air traffic in the sector during Norad operations,” the entity explained in a statement.
The day before, US authorities also closed the airspace of the state of Montana after a “radar anomaly” was detected. A fighter jet checked it out, but did not identify any “object,” according to the military.
On Sunday, however, that state’s legislator Matt Rosendale said he was in “constant contact” with the military and assured that “they told me they are sure there was an object and that it was not an anomaly,” the representative tweeted.
Washington and Ottawa were busy collecting the remains of the devices on Sunday.
These operations increase tensions between China and the U.S. to the point that Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to Beijing after the first balloon was detected.
Michael McCaul, a Republican lawmaker and chairman of the House of Representatives foreign relations committee, accused China of an act of belligerence on Sunday.
The sending of this object “was done with the intent to collect information and elements from our three largest nuclear facilities,” he charged in a statement to CBS.
Republicans strongly criticized Biden for letting the balloon hover over the country for several days before taking it down.
The Pentagon said it “continuously monitored and analyzed” the balloon, which allowed it to understand “further the capabilities and techniques” of China’s alleged espionage.
For his part, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer defended Biden’s decisions by telling ABC on Sunday that the analysis of the remains of the device represents “a major achievement for the United States.”
What is known about the mysterious objects shot down by the US
The downing of a huge Chinese balloon off the coast of the United States, as well as three other objects over Alaska, Michigan and Canada, have raised security concerns in North America and worsened already tense relations with China.
Here are the main questions and what is known about the events so far:
- What were the objects?
The incidents began in late January, when a huge Chinese balloon, which Washington officials described as having espionage purposes, cruised the U.S. skies for days before being shot down on February 4 by an F-22 jet off the coast of South Carolina.
China insisted that the balloon was conducting meteorological research.
The Pentagon said the balloon had a gondola the size of three buses and weighed more than a ton, and was equipped with several antennas and solar panels large enough to power several information-gathering sensors.
It also appeared to have the ability to spin on its own, use the wind, and have propulsion, according to officials.
On Friday, U.S. fighter jets shot down another object in northern Alaska, the military said, adding that it was “within sovereign airspace and over the territorial waters of the United States.” This object lacked any propulsion or control system, according to officials.
On Saturday, a US F-22 fighter jet, acting on orders from Washington and Canada, shot down a “high-altitude airborne object” over the Yukon Territory in central Canada, about 160 kilometers from the US border, on the grounds that it posed a threat to civil aviation.
Canada described it as cylindrical and smaller than the first balloon. Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand refused to speculate on whether the object was of Chinese origin.
On Sunday, Biden ordered another object to be shot down “as a precaution” over Lake Huron. The device was described as an octagonal structure with dangling ropes and posed a risk to civil aviation as it flew at an altitude of 20,000 feet, according to government sources.
The Pentagon stated that none of the four objects appeared armed or posed a threat of attack.
- What was recovered?
Military teams, working with planes, boats, and mini-submarines, are combing the shallow waters off South Carolina. Military images showed the recovery of a large piece of the balloon.
The FBI has taken custody of the remains of the balloon for analysis.
Operations to recover the second object continue on the sea ice near Deadhorse, Alaska. “Arctic weather conditions, including cold wind, snow and limited daylight” impact operations, the military said.
Recovery teams, supported by a Canadian CP-140 patrol aircraft, are searching for remains of the third object in the Yukon, Anand reported Saturday. The Pentagon noted that the FBI is working closely with Canadian police.
The Pentagon said on Sunday that American and Canadian teams are preparing an operation to try to recover the fourth object.
- What was the purpose of the objects?
American officials say that images of the first balloon show that it consisted of surveillance equipment capable of intercepting telecommunications.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said its mission was to “monitor strategic locations in the continental United States.”
Michael Mullen, former commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that China, or some members of its military leadership, intended to intentionally undermine Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing.
The United States maintains that the balloons were part of a “fleet” that has traveled all five continents.
Speculation is growing about the other objects. Under Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security Melissa Dalton said that public and private research agencies launch their own devices into the atmosphere at high altitudes.
Some analysts say it may be the beginning of a major Chinese surveillance effort aimed at examining foreign military capabilities in anticipation of possible tensions over Taiwan in the coming years.
- Why so many now?
Dalton said Sunday that after the Chinese balloon was detected, U.S. air defense made adjustments to radar systems to have the ability to detect smaller, slower objects in the atmosphere.
Analysts say U.S. and Canadian intelligence is constantly receiving large amounts of raw data and generally discarding some to focus on the threat of approaching missiles, not slow-moving objects like balloons.
“Now, of course, we are tracking them. So I think we’ll probably find more things,” Jim Himes, the top Democratic representative on the lower House Intelligence Committee, told NBC.
On Saturday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) sent fighters to investigate a “radar anomaly” over Montana, but found no related objects.
- What is the impact on US-China relations?
The US suspended Blinken’s visit to China, which was intended to stabilize bilateral relations, and sanctioned six Chinese entities.
Beijing denounced the downing of the first balloon and said it “seriously violates international practice,” and said it reserves the right to “use the necessary means to deal with similar situations” in the future.
Dalton added on Sunday that after Beijing refused to establish communication for several days, U.S. officials had “contacts” with China about the balloon, but did not detail the nature of the conversation.
There has been no Chinese reaction to the last two downed devices.
- What are the domestic consequences?
Republicans have criticized Biden for waiting so long to shoot down the first balloon, although on Sunday House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner said the U.S. military has gone from “permissive” to having a “light trigger.”
But Biden faces calls from both sides to show greater transparency. “I’m really concerned that the government is not being more forthright with everything it knows,” Himes said.
*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI team ***