WASHINGTON — The U.S. military on Friday afternoon shot down a "high-altitude object" flying over Alaskan airspace and Arctic waters, National Security Council official John Kirby confirmed at the White House.
Kirby said the U.S. does not know who owns the object, and he would not call it a balloon, like the one allegedly owned by the Chinese government that the U.S. military shot down Saturday.
“We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now,” Kirby told reporters during the White House briefing. “We do not know who owns it, whether it’s state-owned or corporate-owned or privately owned. We just don’t know.”
The Pentagon had been tracking the object over the last 24 hours, he said.
"The object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight," Kirby told reporters during the White House briefing. "Out of an abundance of caution, and at the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Biden ordered the military to down the object and they did and it came inside our territorial waters and those waters right now are frozen."
Fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command took down the object "within the last hour," Kirby said around 2:30 p.m. ET. The pilots were able to determine that it was “unmanned” before it was shot down, he added.
President Joe Biden briefly commented on the matter in response to a question from reporters at the White House. "Success," the president said about the downing of the object.
Pilots shot the object down just off the northeastern part of Alaska, near the Canadian border, over the Arctic Sea, Kirby said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that he’d been “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.”
U.S. officials did not understand the full purpose of the object, Kirby said, adding that the U.S. expects it will be able to recover the debris. "A recovery effort will be made, and we're hopeful that it'll be successful and then we can learn a little bit more about it," he said.
The object, which the U.S. learned about Thursday evening, was described as "roughly the size of a small car," Kirby said.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder provided additional details at a briefing with reporters, noting that the object was shot down at 1:45 p.m. ET.
The U.S. initially detected the object on ground radar and further investigated it using aircraft, Ryder said. An F-22 fighter jet shot down the object using an A9X missile, he added.
U.S. Northern Command coordinated the operation with assistance from the Alaska Air National Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI, Ryder said.
The debris-recovery process is taking place amid a mix of ice and snow, and the response has involved Alaska-based units under the direction of U.S. Northern Command, along with the Alaskan National Guard, the Pentagon said Friday night.
On Saturday, the U.S. Northern Command said search and recovery operations have continued into the weekend.
"Arctic weather conditions, including wind chill, snow, and limited daylight, are a factor in this operation, and personnel will adjust recovery operations to maintain safety," U.S. Northern Command said in a statement. "Recovery activities are occurring on sea ice. We have no further details at this time about the object, including its capabilities, purpose, or origin."
The command also said it's continuing recovery efforts off the coast of South Carolina for the Chinese spy balloon that was shot down last week. The FBI is assisting in the effort that includes U.S. Navy vessels.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told NBC’s "Nightly News with Lester Holt" that the incident was "a threat to our sovereignty."
"We need to be clear...that we don’t tolerate this, period," Murkowski said, noting she had received a classified briefing on the matter.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he was briefed by senior Pentagon officials about the object and said the U.S. needs to “reestablish deterrence” in response to the Chinese government, which he said “believes they can willfully infiltrate American airspace whenever they want.”
“That has to stop. The best way to do this is through the type of actions that we’ve taken today in Alaska and to publicly reiterate that we will be shooting down any and all unknown aircraft that violate our airspace,” said Sullivan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement. “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.”
In an interview on Fox News, Sullivan later said the object had been shot down over Deadhorse, Alaska, near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.
The Pentagon said the object had been traveling in a northeasterly direction across Alaska when it was first discovered.
Asked why the U.S. seemed to take more immediate action in downing the object compared with last week's response to the alleged Chinese spy balloon, Ryder said, "In this particular case, given the fact that it was operating at an altitude that posed a reasonable threat to civilian air traffic, the determination was made and the president gave the order to take it down."
Civilian aircraft, he added, usually operate around 40,000 to 45,000 feet and therefore the object presented a "threat to or a potential hazard to civilian air traffic."
The suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down last week was determined by the Pentagon to be traveling at an altitude of about 60,000 feet.
Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner, D-Va., tweeted that he was “Glad to see the President act swiftly on this new intrusion to our airspace.”
“I’m looking forward to more details becoming public as the recovery and investigation continues,” Warner said.
Kirby said the object in Alaska didn't appear to have the ability to independently maneuver like the Chinese balloon that flew above the U.S. for eight days before it was downed off the coast of South Carolina.
"The first one was able to maneuver, and loiter, slow down, speed up," Kirby said. "It was very purposeful."
While the Pentagon said last week that the balloon did not pose any physical or military threat to the U.S., it raised concerns about the possibility of collecting sensitive information and heightened tensions further between Beijing and Washington.
The balloon flew close to prominent sites related to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, according to numerous sightings. A senior State Department official revealed Thursday that it carried “multiple antennas” capable of gathering signal intelligence and solar panels to power its “multiple active intelligence collection sensors.” U.S. officials have maintained that the balloon’s ability to collect more information than Chinese satellites was limited.
Under Biden’s authority, the balloon was shot down by an F-22 Raptor with a Sidewinder missile. The Navy has since led an effort to collect its debris, which is being analyzed at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia.
The balloon affair caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel his planned trip to Beijing, which would have been the first by a U.S. secretary of state since Mike Pompeo’s visit in 2018. The hope was to de-escalate recent agitation between the two countries. Instead, China and the U.S. have come to loggerheads over the alleged spy balloon program.
It has also created a political firestorm in Congress, as Republicans and Democrats have demanded answers from the Biden administration about why it chose to respond to the balloon so late and why similar Chinese balloon incursions in years past were only recently uncovered.
“Do we have a plan for the next time that happens and how we’re going to deal with it?” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked defense officials testifying Thursday on Capitol Hill about the alleged spy balloons. “Because, quite frankly, I’ll just tell you: I don’t want a damn balloon going across the United States.”