On Friday afternoon, just six days after a fighter jet took out a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, the U.S. shot down another high-altitude “object” off the coast of Alaska, and President Biden was quick to deem the operation “a success.”
The latest object was detected within the past 24 hours and was shot down on Biden’s orders at 1:45 p.m. ET, according to Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.
Ryder added that the U.S. has yet to determine the object’s “capabilities, purpose or origin.” Officials hope they will be able to answer those questions after they recover and analyze it.
The object was picked up on ground radar on Thursday, and fighter jets were scrambled to observe it from the air. Pilots determined the object was unmanned and used an F-22 to shoot it down after the president gave the order.
At 40,000 feet, the object “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a White House briefing. Kirby said that this object, unlike the first balloon, didn’t have the same “maneuverable capacity” and was moving “virtually at the whim of the wind.”
“It was much, much smaller than the spy balloon that we took down last Saturday,” he said. “The way it was described to me was roughly the size of a small car, as opposed to a payload that was like two or three buses sized … no significant payload, if you will.”
Kirby said that it was still unclear if the object had surveillance capabilities, and although last week’s surveillance balloon came from China, the US has not contacted the country to see if the new object originated from them.
“We’re calling this an object, because that’s the best description we have right now. We do not know who owns it,” Kirby said.
“We do expect to be able to recover the debris since it fell not only within our territorial space but on what we believe is frozen water.”
Ryder, however, declined to rule out the possibility that the object could be a balloon, saying he did not want to “characterize” it until it is recovered and analyzed.
While it took a full week for the first spy balloon to be identified, publicized and taken down, officials took less than a day to shoot the new object out of the sky.
The second shootdown in a week comes after defense officials faced heavy scrutiny from Congress on Thursday over their decision to allow the Chinese spy device to float over Alaska, through Canada, and across the continental U.S. before finally shooting it down off Myrtle Beach on Feb. 4.
NORAD said it did not believe the earlier spy balloon posed a military threat when first identified and did not discuss the possibility of shooting it down until it was seen hovering over Montana on Feb. 1.
During an Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing on Thursday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) tore into officials and the Biden administration over their decision to not take down the spy balloon when it was first seen approaching her home state on Jan. 28.
“As an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words, but I’m not going to,” she said. “If you’re going to have Russia coming at you, if you’re going to have China coming at you, we know exactly how they come: They come up and they go over Alaska.”
Ryder denied that congressional criticism influenced the time it took for defense officials to determine what to do with the latest object, reiterating that its lower altitude posed a greater risk to air traffic than the spy balloon, which flew at about 60,000 feet.
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