Another aerial object, this time over Lake Huron, shot down by military

U.S. Fleet Forces/U.S. Navy photo/Handout via REUTERS//File Photo
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that was downed by the United States over the weekend over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, U.S., February 5, 2023.

The U.S. military shot down a fourth aerial “object,” this time over Lake Huron on Sunday afternoon, according to the Defense Department, which described the object as “unmanned” and not a military threat to anything on the ground.

Officials said the object, initially detected Saturday night, was flying over Michigan’s upper peninsula at about 20,000 feet – an altitude and path that raised concerns about potential interference with commercial aviation.

Military leaders determined the object was not a threat, but they opted to shoot it down after tracking it over Lake Huron because it could pose a hazard to air traffic, Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, who oversees the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said at a news conference Sunday night. The debris appeared to land in Lake Huron, where recovery operations are being handled by the FBI on the American side and by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on that country’s side, VanHerck added.

In describing the latest shoot-down, officials acknowledged that the Pentagon tried and failed to confront the object late Saturday afternoon, when radars detected something suspicious 70 miles north of the U.S. border in Canada. As the object crossed into U.S. airspace, F-15 fighter jets out of Portland, Ore., were scrambled to investigate over Montana, but they were unable to find the object as darkness closed in, VanHerck said. Radar operators lost the object over Montana.

The object was detected once again by radar operators on Sunday over Wisconsin and later Michigan. “Based on its flight path and data, we can reasonably connect this object to the radar signal picked up over Montana, which flew in proximity to sensitive DOD sites,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement before the Sunday night news conference.

Fighter aircraft tracked the object in eastern Wisconsin, “assessed it was no threat” and continued to track it across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before shooting it down, VanHerck said. It was shot down by an AIM-9X Sidewinder from an F-16 at 2:42 p.m. Sunday.

The takedown of a fourth mysterious airborne object was initially announced in a pair of tweets from Michigan lawmakers. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said the object was “downed” by pilots from the U.S. Air Force and National Guard. Slotkin said in a tweet that she learned about the latest object from the Defense Department and “that all parties have been laser-focused on it from the moment it traversed our waters.”

The increase in detection of these kinds of objects comes after military officials have been more closely scrutinizing the skies following the downing of what the Biden administration has called a Chinese surveillance balloon, Melissa Dalton, assistant defense secretary of Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, said at the news conference Sunday night.

Officials at the briefing declined to comment on the shape of the object until they recover it. But earlier Sunday, a senior Biden administration official, who provided a statement on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, described it as an “octagonal structure” with no visible sensors or cameras.

Even before the latest shoot-down became public, members of Congress on Sunday were pressing for more information from the Biden administration about the objects shot down over North America in recent days.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, was critical of the lack of details from the White House.

“I have real concerns about why the administration is not being more forthcoming with everything that it knows,” Himes said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Himes acknowledged that the limited information is probably due in part to the second and third objects being shot down in remote areas off the northern coast of Alaska and over Canada’s Yukon territory that have complicated recovery efforts. But he warned that the dearth of details from the administration could quickly lead to public anxiety and wild speculation about alien invasions or additional spying by China or Russia.

“I do hope that very soon, the administration has a lot more information for all of us on what’s going on,” Himes said.

When asked on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) characterized the two objects shot over Alaska and Canada as “balloons.” U.S. and Canadian officials said the latest objects were much smaller than the Chinese airship that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 after traversing the continental United States.

However, officials urged caution as they continue to gather information about the objects through recovery efforts.

“We will not definitively characterize them until we can recover the debris, which we are working on,” according to the senior administration official. “I would note we have kept Congress continuously briefed and we will continue to.”

Schumer defended the administration’s handling of the situation and said U.S. military and intelligence officials are gathering and analyzing information as they seek to learn about the objects’ capabilities and purpose.

“You can be sure that if any American interests or people are at risk, they will take appropriate action,” Schumer said on ABC.

Little is known about what Canada’s defense minister said was a “cylindrical object” first detected Friday evening by NORAD, an organization that includes both U.S. and Canadian military personnel and is responsible for safeguarding North America’s skies. After a call between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Biden, the leaders authorized their pilots to shoot down the object over the Yukon, the White House said in a statement Saturday night.

“The leaders discussed the importance of recovering the object in order to determine more details on its purpose or origin,” the statement said.

Another object was downed Friday near the North Slope of Alaska by a U.S. fighter jet, but its recovery has been hampered by icy conditions and wind chills reaching minus-55 degrees.

Detection of the most recent incursions is a result of additional information from radars and sensors, a U.S. official said Saturday, partly addressing a key question of why so many objects have been spotted recently.

“We basically opened the filters,” the official said, much like a car buyer unchecking boxes on a website to broaden the parameters of what can be searched. That change does not yet fully answer what is going on, the official cautioned, and whether stepping back to look at more data is yielding more hits – or if these latest incursions are part of a more deliberate action by an unknown country or adversary. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Asked whether Americans should be worried, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Sunday that the administration had acted out of an abundance of caution and in coordination with Canada.

“We’re always going to track, we’re always going to detect, and we’re always going to defend our airspace. And that’s what the American people should expect,” she said on MSNBC’s “The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart.”

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the Biden administration with its latest downing of an unknown object over Canada does “appear somewhat trigger-happy, although this is certainly preferable to the permissive environment that they showed when the Chinese spy balloon was coming over some of our most sensitive sites.”

Administration officials have said that allowing the Chinese craft to traverse the country gave military officials time to observe it and gather intelligence that has informed their understanding of what they now say is a sprawling surveillance program overseen by the People’s Liberation Army. Searches continued over the weekend off the coast of South Carolina for that airship and near the north Alaskan town of Deadhorse for the object shot down Friday.

Turner said the Biden administration needs to “stop briefing Congress through our television sets and actually come and sit down and brief us. What we’re seeing here is a number of announcements by the administration without any real information being given to Congress.”

Republicans and Democrats pressed senior U.S. defense officials during a congressional hearing last week about why they had not acted sooner to stop the Chinese balloon and whether they have taken appropriate measures to enforce the boundaries of U.S. airspace.

Schumer said Sunday that he supports efforts by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to examine why U.S. officials are only now learning about and taking action to shoot down such objects, which Schumer said dated back to the Trump administration.

“Congress should look at that. That’s the question we have to answer,” Schumer said. “I think our military, our intelligence are doing a great job, present and future. I feel a lot of confidence in what they’re doing. But why – why as far back as the Trump administration did no one know about this?”