The United States has shot down four flying objects since a Chinese balloon was first sighted over the US in early February, causing heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington and sparking rumours about the origins and nature of the objects.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, US General Mark Milley said that it took two attempts on Sunday to shoot down the latest unidentified object over Lake Huron, near the US border with Canada. The first missile, he explained, failed to hit its target and fell into the water.
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“The most important thing for the American military is protecting the American people,” Milley told reporters, saying that authorities take into consideration nearby air traffic and the possibility of a debris field before targetting any objects, in order to minimise the risk of “collateral damage”.
Milley also said that efforts to collect debris from the downed objects had been hampered by “difficult terrain” but that the pieces would eventually be recovered.
The first aerial craft to be shot down this month was a Chinese balloon that had traversed the contiguous US, before being ruptured by a US missile off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.
The US has accused China of using the balloon for surveillance, while China insisted that its purpose was for weather research and that the balloon had been blown off course.
In addition, US fighter planes brought down three unidentified objects between Friday and Sunday, in both US and Canadian airspace. It remains unclear what relationship, if any, China has with the three objects, and the US has not offered information on their origin or purpose, although it has stated that none of the three appeared to pose a security threat.
The first of the three objects was shot down over the US state of Alaska on February 10, the second over Canada’s Yukon Territory the next day, and the third was Sunday’s takedown of an object over Lake Huron.
In the absence of an official explanation, rumours have swirled about the possibility that the objects could be visitors from another planet. On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed those concerns, saying, “There is no — again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”
Romania also reported suspicions that a potential surveillance balloon had entered its airspace, but could not confirm the presence of a balloon after sending fighter planes to investigate.
On Tuesday, Japan’s Ministry of Defence said that it “strongly suspects” that Chinese surveillance balloons have entered Japanese territory on three occasions since 2019.