U.S. fighter jets intercepted and shot down an aerial object over the coast of Alaska on Friday, less than a week after a Chinese spy balloon traversed the country before being destroyed.
The latest object was at 40,000 feet above the state’s northern coast and judged to be a threat to civilian air traffic when an F-22 Raptor hit it with a Sidewinder missile, according to the Pentagon. President Joe Biden gave the shootdown order after it was detected by U.S. Northern Command on Thursday.
It was still unclear Friday whether the object was a balloon or some other type of aircraft, and the origin was unknown, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said. Military helicopters were being sent to recover what was left of the object.
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“We have no further details about the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose or origin,” Ryder said during a briefing to reporters. “The object was about the size of a small car, so not similar in size or shape to the high-altitude surveillance balloon.”
On Feb. 4, also at Biden’s direction, fighter jets shot down off the coast of South Carolina a larger, maneuverable Chinese balloon with a payload designed to collect surveillance on the U.S. Before it was taken down, the spy balloon floated over a wide swath of the U.S. at a higher 65,000-foot altitude — above commercial air traffic — and the Pentagon deemed a shootdown over land to be a public danger.
That shootdown marked the first time that an F-22, also using a Sidewinder missile, had tallied an air-to-air kill.
The Chinese surveillance balloon, which was first seen by the public over Montana, was described as 200 feet high with a payload the size of a regional jet, according to a description by Northern Command. Defense officials feared that the debris could have fallen on people and property.
The new object was first detected at 1:45 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday by Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.
Two F-22s were scrambled from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and intercepted the object, which was moving along the coast near the Canadian border. The jets were able to observe the object, and they determined it was unmanned, Ryder said.
One of the Raptors hit the object with an A9X missile, destroying it, according to Ryder. The debris was believed to have fallen over the frozen ocean, where it may be recovered and examined, John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said in a briefing Friday.
An HC-130 Combat King airplane and two helicopters — a Pave Hawk and Chinook — were sent to the scene to try to collect what was left after the missile strike.
The Pentagon said the two incidents were different and denied questions over whether Biden’s order to shoot down an unidentified object — just days after a Chinese surveillance balloon flew across the country — was political.
“We’re going to judge each of these on its merits,” Ryder said.
The object detected Thursday was at an altitude used by commercial air traffic, which caused defense officials to deem it an immediate threat to the public and they advised Biden that it be destroyed.
Officials said they did not know whether it came from another nation or could have been just a wayward weather balloon.
But the latest decision by Biden to shoot down the unknown object came after a tumultuous week for the administration. The Chinese balloon became a national spectacle and caused a political furor in Washington, D.C., where Congress voted to condemn China, and Republicans criticized Biden for his handling of the incident.
On Thursday, Pentagon officials struggled to placate lawmakers who were alarmed by the move by China to brazenly send a giant spy balloon, as well as the Biden administration’s failure to shoot down the balloon before it reached the continental U.S.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he didn’t “want a damn balloon going over the United States when we could’ve taken it down over the Aleutian Islands,” an Alaskan island chain.
Recovery operations for the spy balloon were continuing Friday. Ryder said a “significant amount of the debris” had been located on the ocean floor and divers were tagging and retrieving pieces.
— Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.
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