The United States has shot down an object “roughly the size of a small car” over the northwestern state of Alaska, US officials said, stressing that its origins were not immediately known.
The incident on Friday came less than a week after US forces brought down an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon after it spent several days crossing the country. Beijing has said the device was a weather research aircraft that had “accidentally” blown into American airspace.
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White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that Friday’s “high-altitude object” was flying at 12,000m (40,000ft) over Alaska, posing a threat to civilian aviation, and it was brought down on the orders of US President Joe Biden.
“We don’t know who owns this object,” Kirby said during a news conference, adding that it was significantly smaller than the Chinese balloon that flew over the country last week.
“We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now,” he said. “We don’t have any information that would confirm a stated purpose for this object.”
Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Ryder said the US military was working to recover debris from the object.
“We have no further details about the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose or origin,” Ryder told reporters.
He noted that the object was “not similar in size or shape” to the Chinese balloon that was brought down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.
Asked whether there are indications that the object over Alaska may be linked to China, Ryder reiterated that the Pentagon does not know where it came from. “The primary concern again was the potential hazard to civil flight, and so again, we’ll know more later,” he said.
Later on Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was briefed on the object’s presence in US airspace and supported Washington’s decision to shoot it down.
“Our military and intelligence services will always work together, including through [the North American Aerospace Defense Command], to keep people safe,” he tweeted.
The Chinese balloon shot down last weekend measured about 60m (200ft) tall and was carrying a long sensor package underneath, which the head of the US military’s Northern Command, General Glen VanHerck, said this week was about the size of a small regional jet.
While Beijing has said the balloon was an “unmanned civilian airship” that was primarily gathering meteorological data, Washington denounced its presence in US airspace as an “unacceptable” violation of the country’s sovereignty.
This afternoon, an object that violated American airspace was brought down. I was briefed on the matter and supported the decision to take action. Our military and intelligence services will always work together, including through @NORADCommand, to keep people safe.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) February 10, 2023
US officials have said the device was “clearly for intelligence surveillance”.
The incident, which led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned trip to China, has fuelled rising tensions between two already intensely competitive superpowers.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over numerous issues in recent years, including trade, the status of Taiwan, China’s claims in the South China Sea and a continuing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration also has faced condemnation from Republicans over the balloon episode, who have questioned why the president did not order the military to shoot the device down earlier.
Biden has said his government is not seeking confrontation with China, which condemned the decision to shoot down the balloon, but he has repeatedly warned Beijing against threatening US sovereignty.