WASHINGTON — U.S. military leaders on Sunday said they were in the dark about the exact nature and purpose of airborne objects shot down over the United States and Canada since Friday.
Unlike a balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina Feb. 4, described by officials as spy aircraft, it’s unclear how the most recent objects stay aloft and move along, Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), said at a media briefing Sunday.
“I’m not going to categorize them as balloons,” he said. “We’re calling them objects for a reason. I’m not able to categorize how they stay aloft.”
After the briefing, a defense official added that there was “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”
Earlier, when asked about that possibility, VanHerck had declined to rule it out. “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” he said.
An unidentified object shot down Sunday over Lake Huron — the fourth flying object in less than two weeks to have been downed over North American airspace — was described earlier Sunday by a senior administration official as an octagonal structure with strings hanging off but no discernible payload.
VanHerck described the objects shot down Friday, Saturday and Sunday by North American forces as being similar in size and shape. One issue in getting a better description, he said, is that fighter jets are traveling at relatively high speeds when eyes are put on them, at roughly 200 mph compared with objects that are aloft but otherwise nearly static.
Those three remained a mystery in contrast to the Feb. 4 takedown of aircraft believed to belong to the People’s Republic of China, Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, said during Sunday’s briefing.
“The spy balloon from the PRC was of course different in that we know precisely what it was,” she said.
In a statement Sunday afternoon, the Pentagon confirmed that an F-16 fighter firing an AIM9x missile shot the latest object down at 2:42 p.m. at roughly 20,000 feet.
President Joe Biden gave the order based on the recommendations of military leadership after the object’s path and altitude raised concerns about risks to civil aviation. It was judged not to be a military threat, but it could have had surveillance capabilities, the statement said.
On Saturday evening, NORAD and U.S. Northern Command reported that fighter aircraft had been sent to investigate a radar-detected “anomaly” in airspace over Montana but said they were unable visualize any objects.
On Sunday, VanHerck said the overnight recurrence of an anomaly prompted military officials to develop a game plan as it was tracked Sunday to Lake Huron.
“The all-clear was given to engage the target and ultimately it was taken down about 15 nautical miles east of the Upper Peninsula in Lake Huron,” the general said.
The Pentagon said in its statement Sunday that NORAD had been able to track the anomaly visually and via radar. “Based on its flight path and data we can reasonably connect this object to the radar signal picked up over Montana, which flew in proximity to sensitive DOD sites,” it said.
The location of the shootdown was chosen to minimize risks to people on the ground and to improve chances to recover the debris, the statement said. There were no indications any civilians were hurt or otherwise affected, it said.
The Federal Aviation Administration briefly closed some airspace over Lake Michigan on Sunday to support Pentagon activities, the agency said in a statement. The airspace has been reopened.
Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., whose district includes the area where the object was shot down, tweeted that he had been briefed and in a later post called the response a “decisive action, using the right equipment.”
He also noted the challenges debris recovery could present. “Lake Huron is very, very cold this time of year. They’re going to have to use some special diving capabilities to get down there.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., tweeted earlier Sunday: “The object has been downed by pilots from the US Air Force and National Guard. Great work by all who carried out this mission both in the air and back at headquarters. We’re all interested in exactly what this object was and it’s [sic] purpose.” She added that she will continue to ask Congress for a full briefing.
After news broke that the object had been downed, Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., tweeted that the Pentagon had notified them that an object over Lake Huron had been shot down.
After the Chinese surveillance balloon was downed this month, the U.S. military is now looking at a wider range of radar data as it monitors North American airspace and is looking at more objects and smaller objects that it might have filtered out as clutter in the past, two U.S. defense officials said. The Washington Post was first to report the shift.
It remains unclear whether the military is now spotting objects that have been present but not noticed or there are new aerial objects that were not present before.
A U.S. defense official said NORAD is looking at more raw radar data than previously.
“The easiest comparison is an online search for a car, when you use filters for color, model, etc., and see the search results, then go back and say, ‘Turn off the color filter,’ and you see more options,” the official told NBC News. “The data was always there, but due to how we process radar data into visualizations for decision-making, some of that data was screened out. We’re actively adjusting that process now to refine how we see, which of course affects what we see.
“We don’t yet know whether these phenomena have been there for a while and we’re just now seeing them or if this is new,” the official added. “Between data from object recovery and going through our technical radar data, we are working toward better understanding.”
On Feb. 4, an F-22 Raptor shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon with a missile off South Carolina near Myrtle Beach.
Then, on Friday, the U.S. military shot down a “high-altitude object” flying over Alaskan airspace and Arctic waters. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described the object, flying at roughly 40,000 feet, as “roughly the size of a small car.”
And Saturday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down another unidentified object over Canada on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s orders.
CORRECTION (Feb. 12, 2023, 10:53 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated who said it was clear to officials that the object shot down Feb. 4 was a Chinese spy balloon. It was Melissa Dalton, the assistant defense secretary for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, not Gen. Glen VanHerck. » …