Pentagon Shoots Down Unidentified Object At High Altitude Over Alaska

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said it shot down an unidentified object over frozen waters around Alaska on Friday at the order of President Biden, less than a week after a U.S. fighter jet brought down a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic in an episode that increased tensions between Washington and Beijing.

U.S. officials said they could not immediately confirm whether the object was a balloon, but it was traveling at an altitude that made it a potential threat to civilian aircraft.

At a news conference on Friday, John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Biden ordered the unidentified object near Alaska downed “out of an abundance of caution.”

The Friday shootdown showed Mr. Biden taking direct and forceful action far more quickly than he did last week, when some Republican lawmakers criticized him for letting the spy balloon linger over the United States for several days before destroying it. But that period of observation last week allowed American officials to collect intelligence about the spy balloon, while in the episode on Friday, officials seemed unsure about what exactly they shot down.

Pentagon officials said they were able to immediately bring down the object over water, so they could easily avoid the dilemma posed by the spy balloon drifting over populated areas, which had prompted commanders to recommend to Mr. Biden to wait to shoot down the machine in order to avoid any chance of debris hitting people on the ground.

Three U.S. officials said that as of Friday evening, the government did not know who owned or sent the object seen above Alaska, which, like the Chinese balloon last week, was shot down by an F-22 fighter jet using a Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

Several officials said they believed the object shot down Friday was a balloon, but a Defense Department official said it broke into pieces when it hit the frozen sea, which added to the mystery of whether it was indeed a balloon, a drone or something else.

Mr. Kirby said that the object was “much, much smaller than the spy balloon that we took down last Saturday” and that “the way it was described to me was roughly the size of a small car, as opposed to the payload that was like two or three buses.”

He added that pilots confirmed it was unmanned before bringing it down over the Arctic Ocean near Canada.

In a statement on Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said he was briefed on the matter and “supported the decision to take action.”

American radar picked up the object around 9 p.m. on Thursday, Alaska time, and U.S. Northern Command sent an AWACS surveillance aircraft, accompanied by an aerial refueling plane, to track it. The object, officials said, had traversed over land in Alaska and was back over the sea heading toward the North Pole, traveling at 20 to 40 miles per hour, before it was struck down.

The Chinese spy balloon flew across the United States at 60,000 feet, far above the range of commercial airlines. Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said because the second object flew much lower, it had the potential to interfere with air traffic over Alaska. Senior Pentagon officials recommended that it be shot down.

A U.S. official said there were “no affirmative indications of military threat” to people on the ground from the object.

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Officials said that they could not confirm whether there was any surveillance equipment on the object, and that an effort to recover debris was underway.

The breach of U.S. airspace was relatively short, according to officials, which is one reason they could not immediately identify what type of object was involved.

Michael P. Mulroy, a former Pentagon official, said that shooting the object down over Alaska was the right action.

“If it was another Chinese spy balloon, that indicates that China is either incompetent in operating these platforms or potentially deliberately provoking the U.S.,” Mr. Mulroy said. “It is also important for the U.S. and China to maintain direct communications during times like this. Especially between the militaries.”

U.S. officials said Friday evening that they had no evidence that the object over Alaska had come from China. General Ryder said it was traveling northeast when Northern Command began tracking it. But he would not speculate on its provenance. He said the Pentagon had made no effort to contact China since Beijing rebuffed a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III last week.

The spy balloon episode last week has increased U.S.-China tensions at a time when the relationship between the two nations is at one of the lowest points in decades. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken canceled a trip last weekend to Beijing, where he had been expected to meet with President Xi Jinping, after the Pentagon told reporters about the balloon.

Pentagon officials said the spy balloon had posed no threat, and allowing it to stay in the air longer gave the U.S. military time to study it, including having U-2 spy planes take high-resolution images of its equipment.

During internal deliberations, some U.S. officials pressed for options to shoot down the balloon earlier. Officials also reviewed whether the military could use a giant net or hook to bring down the balloon.

U.S. officials say the spy balloon was part of a fleet directed by the Chinese military that has flown over more than 40 countries on five continents in recent years. The balloons are made by one or more civilian-run companies that officially sell products to the military, officials said, though the Biden administration has not publicly identified the company that made the downed balloon.

U.S. officials say a balloon that was drifting over Latin America last week was also part of the Chinese surveillance program.

The New York Times reported last Saturday that a classified intelligence report given to Congress last month highlighted at least two instances of a foreign power using advanced technology for aerial surveillance over American military bases, one in the continental United States and the other overseas. The research suggested China was the foreign power, U.S. officials said.

The report gave details of a recent government review of unidentified aerial phenomena and, in that context, discussed earlier episodes of surveillance balloons as well as other flying objects.

The Commerce Department announced on Friday that it was banning most trade between U.S. companies and several Chinese companies that it had identified as aerospace and technology enterprises that have ties to the People’s Liberation Army of China, the Chinese military. Among other things, the companies help supply airships, balloons or related components to military intelligence-gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance programs, the department said.

The Chinese companies are mostly based in large cities and manufacturing hubs, including Beijing, Guangzhou and Dongguan. U.S. companies will have to apply for a license to do business with those companies, which are being put on an “entity list,” but the licenses would most likely be denied, the department said.

The announcement framed the move as a response to the spy balloon incursion last week, but it is unclear whether U.S. officials had already been discussing possible sanctions against these companies earlier.

“The P.R.C.’s use of high-altitude balloons violates our sovereignty and threatens U.S. national security,” Alan Estevez, the under secretary of commerce for industry and security, said in the announcement, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “Today’s action makes clear that entities that seek to harm U.S. national security and sovereignty will be cut off from accessing U.S. technologies.”

China asserts that the two balloons spotted last week, in the United States and Latin America, were both civilian machines used for weather research or test flights. They drifted off course and are Chinese property, officials in Beijing said.

U.S. officials say there have been at least three intrusions into U.S. airspace by Chinese spy balloons during the Trump administration and two during the Biden administration, mainly in coastal areas. Before last week, officials said, they entered and left U.S. territory quickly.

Adam Entous and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.

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