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‘High-altitude object’ shot down over Alaska, U.S. says


A U.S. fighter jet shot down a “high-altitude object” in Alaskan airspace Friday, officials said, marking the second such encounter in a week after the plodding cross-country flight by a suspected Chinese spy balloon unleashed ferocious political blowback against the Biden administration.

The latest object, which officials say they have not conclusively identified, was roughly the size of a car, and much smaller than the Chinese airship shot down Saturday, said Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman. U.S. military officials offered few details, however. They do not yet know the object’s origin, its capabilities or what the craft was doing over U.S. airspace, Ryder said, noting that it was first detected by radar on Thursday.

President Biden directed the strike, said John Kirby, a White House spokesman. The Pentagon had recommended downing the object because it was soaring at about 40,000 feet, potentially threatening civilian air traffic. It was downed over frozen waters off the coast of northeastern Alaska, Kirby said.

“We’re still trying to learn more,” he said. “I want to stress again we don’t know what entity owns this object. There’s no indication it’s from a nation or an institution or an individual.”

Friday’s disclosure by the administration closed out a week of relentless criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike who chastised President Biden and his senior national security advisers for allowing the Chinese craft to soak up intelligence as it drifted over sensitive military sites after having been detected off the Alaska coast Jan. 28. Pentagon officials and others within the administration have said they chose to allow the balloon to proceed along its path so that the military could study the technology before bringing it down, which they did Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina.

Biden was notified about the latest object on Thursday night, after fighter aircraft were dispatched to observe it more closely, Kirby said. Its speed and small size, coupled with the nighttime darkness, left military commanders with few good options upon the initial intercept, officials said.

Another Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Devin Robinson, said the object was traveling northeast across Alaska on Thursday night. The aircraft initially dispatched to observe were F-35s, he said.

Fighter aircraft were sent up again on Friday and determined the craft did not have a pilot on board, Kirby said.

“They worked really hard to try to get as much information as they could about this object,” Kirby said. “It was difficult for the pilots to glean a whole lot of information.”

The shoot-down on Friday was carried out by a pair of F-22 Raptors launched from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, with one of the advanced jets launching a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at 1:45 p.m. Eastern time, Ryder said.

Recovery operations are underway in a mix of snow and ice, with an array of aircraft responding. Among them, Ryder said, is an HC-130, a search-and-rescue plane. One could be seen on online flight trackers Friday circling near Prudhoe Bay, where the Federal Aviation Administration had closed a patch of airspace extending north into the Beaufort Sea, toward the Arctic Ocean. Prudhoe Bay is also home to North America’s largest oil field. The forecast there Friday included temperatures below minus-20 degrees and light snow.

The harsh conditions could make recovery a challenge by preventing boats from reaching the site. In that event, troops may have to use winches deployed from helicopters to collect debris if the ice is deemed too unstable for people or for an aircraft to land on.

The episode occurred as U.S. Navy and Coast Guard personnel continued to recover remnants of the Chinese airship from the Atlantic Ocean. It, too, was taken down by a missile fired from an F-22. U.S. officials have said the craft was part of a sprawling Chinese surveillance program that has targeted dozens of countries. That device was roughly 200 feet tall and carried a payload measuring roughly the size of two or three buses, officials have said.

This week, lawmakers from both major parties demanded answers from a panel of senior Pentagon officials, summoned to Capitol Hill for a hearing about their handling of the situation. Several wanted to know why the Chinese airship was allowed to float all the way to the Atlantic Ocean before it was shot down. The defense officials said they did so because the airship posed no apparent physical threat to Americans, and they wanted to collect as much information as they could about it.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), called her state America’s first line of defense, during Thursday’s hearing. “At what point do we say a … spy balloon coming from China is a threat to our sovereignty?” she asked. “It should be the moment it crosses the line. And that line is Alaska.”

Her counterpart, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), said in a statement Friday that he had been briefed about the latest incident and encouraged U.S. officials to shoot down the object. The incursions have revealed vulnerabilities in U.S. homeland defenses and the audaciousness of the Chinese government, Sullivan said, calling for stronger deterrence measures.

“We also need to appropriately equip our military in Alaska with the sensors and aircraft needed to detect and, if necessary, destroy everything from slow-moving balloons to hypersonic missiles,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Ryder on Friday rejected an insinuation that the administration had bowed to political pressure by moving promptly to down the latest object.

“We’re going to judge each of these on its merits,” he said, asserting that the decision to act was made based a perceived threat to civilian airliners.

The Pentagon did not disclose the Chinese balloon to the public until Feb. 1, when NBC News reported that the airship was over Montana near a U.S. air base that houses nuclear missiles. Biden decided against shooting it down over the continental United States because, officials said, he feared that crashing debris could hurt or kill people on the ground.

The days-long voyage provided intelligence analysts with a host of data, officials said, which helped them to retroactively identify unknown objects as similar spy balloons operated by China. Since marrying that data with other unresolved cases, officials determined there were at least three such incursions in U.S. airspace during the Trump administration and another early in the Biden administration.

Tension between Washington and Beijing has soared as a result. Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, citing the balloon incursion, postponed a trip to China where he had been due to discuss with Chinese leaders how the two powers can work to de-escalate what’s become an acrimonious relationship.

On Friday, the Biden administration placed six Chinese companies and research institutes on a trade blacklist for their suspected support to the Chinese military’s balloon surveillance program, officials said. They are: Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology; China Electronics Technology Group Corporation 48th Research Institute; Dongguan Lingkong Remote Sensing Technology; Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group; Guangzhou Tian-Hai-Xiang Aviation Technology; and Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group.

The People’s Liberation Army’s use of high-altitude balloons for intelligence and reconnaissance activities “is contrary to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests,” the Commerce Department said in a notice on the Federal Register announcing the move. The blacklisting bars U.S. companies from sending any product or technology to the designated companies.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One of the entities cited on Friday, China Electronics Technology Group Corp.’s 48th Research Institute, makes solar cells and photovoltaic materials, according to U.S. researchers. The balloon that flew over the continental United States and was shot down Saturday was equipped with solar panels large enough to operate multiple intelligence collection sensors, according to the State Department. The research institute’s parent organization, CETC, is well known for supplying China’s military, and more than a dozen CETC institutes have been blacklisted by the Commerce Department, the researchers said.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.