The week Biden had to decide whether to shoot down mysterious objects
"In a hectic stretch, a jittery U.S. may have been using sophisticated weaponry to bring down harmless objects
Less than a week after the U.S. military shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon, President Biden received a joint call from the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of the U.S. Northern Command.
An unidentified airborne object had been detected over Alaska, the military leaders said, and they were not sure what it was. But they said it posed a risk to civilian planes and they could not rule out that it had surveillance capabilities, so they were recommending that the United States shoot it down just in case.
Faced with a report that resembled a science-fiction plot, Biden agreed. He gave the order, and on Feb. 10, an F-22 Raptor fired a missile at the object and it plummeted onto Arctic sea ice below.
Almost identical scenarios would play out on each of the next two days. On Feb. 11, radar identified another unmanned flying object making its way over Canada’s Yukon, and then a third on Feb. 12 in the skies near Michigan. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and two senior officers — Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command — notified the president each time, and Biden followed their recommendations that they be shot out of the sky.
The result was an unusual and often surreal few days, as Biden was essentially confronted with deciding whether to shoot down three mysterious objects, leaving a baffled public. The government avoided explicitly calling them unidentified flying objects — UFOs — or unidentified aerial phenomena, a similar term that also evokes jokes about alien life. More than once, the administration felt it had to explicitly clarify there was no evidence the objects were extraterrestrial.
“I just wanted to make sure we address this from the White House. I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday. “It was important for us to say that from here, because we’ve been hearing a lot about it.”
During the three-day stretch, officials urgently analyzed weather patterns, contacted other countries and scrambled to determine why so many of the objects were appearing in rapid succession. At one point Biden found himself on the phone with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, discussing whether to shoot down the object that had made its way to Canada’s airspace.
It now appears possible, even likely, that the mysterious objects — described variously as “car-sized,” “cylindrical” and “octagonal” — had entirely mundane origins. The intelligence community “will not dismiss as a possibility that these could be balloons that were simply tied to commercial or research entities and therefore benign," White House spokesman John Kirby said recently. "That very well could be, or could emerge, as a leading explanation here.”
The history of this episode could be that a jittery U.S. government, on high alert following the discovery of a Chinese espionage balloon, used sophisticated military weaponry to shoot down routine objects. Still, that may not be known for sure until the debris is recovered from remote wilderness, which could take weeks.
There were stark differences between the spy airship and the three objects that followed, and they were treated differently by the government. U.S. military and intelligence agencies had been tracking the Chinese craft for nearly a week by the time it crossed into American airspace last month and knew what it was. They decided to allow the balloon to float over the continental United States before shooting it down over water to minimize the risk to people on the ground.
When it came to the three additional airborne objects, in contrast, U.S. officials had no idea what they were or if they were nefarious before deciding to shoot them down.
Biden plans to give remarks on Thursday about China’s spy balloon program and the three unidentified objects, and he is expected to discuss his order to officials to draw up protocols on how the United States handles such sightings in the future, which are expected to be finalized this week.
Some White House allies and outside experts said the administration was especially sensitive to Republican criticism of its handling of the Chinese spy balloon and accusations that Biden was soft on China because he did not shoot it down earlier. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing in response to the incident, and Biden said he heeded the military’s advice in waiting to shoot down the balloon, which had a payload the size of three school buses, until it was over water.
In the meantime, Biden said, the United States was able to gather valuable information about the balloon. But the incident’s aftermath left the military in a hypervigilant state.
“The White House has attempted to walk a very fine line here," said Brett Bruen, who was a senior National Security Council official in the Obama administration. "On the one hand, they obviously took a lot of criticism for a slow response to the first balloon, and they have attempted in these last three instances to try and show that they were more aggressively defending U.S. airspace. At the same time, I think it has raised a number of questions that they haven’t always had great answers to.”
That lack of clarity left the administration facing questions about why mysterious objects were suddenly being discovered on a daily basis and why it has been so quick to shoot them down.
U.S. officials said the three airborne objects, floating between 20,000 and 40,000 feet, posed a “reasonable” threat to civilian air travel, while the Chinese spy balloon, at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet, did not.
And they said they are probably finding more airborne objects because they are looking harder. The discovery of the spy balloon made military officials aware they were missing slow-moving objects in the skies, prompting them to adjust their radar and discover a new universe of flying objects with unclear intent.
The radar adjustment, analysts said, was akin to an online shopper searching for a house, then tweaking the filter and suddenly getting far more hits.
Now, with no shoot-downs for several days, it is unclear if the Biden administration and the military have again adjusted their response. Austin, asked in Brussels on Thursday if the military is wary of shooting down more objects, declined to answer directly.
“I’m not aware of any additional objects that have been reported operating … in the space in the last 48 hours," Austin said. The Pentagon chief added that it is “absolutely important” to recover the debris of the objects shot down. With the latter three objects down in the Arctic Circle, a remote area of the Yukon and under deep water in Lake Huron, however, recovery is expected to be lengthy.
The drama began on Feb. 2. The Pentagon determined that an object over Montana, visible to civilians on the ground, was the Chinese surveillance balloon they had been tracking, and officials were hastily assembling a news conference when NBC News broke the story.
Biden had been notified about the airship — some 200 feet tall, with a package of sensors and other equipment roughly the size of three buses — a day earlier, as it crossed into the continental United States from Canada. U.S. military officials had spotted it off the coast of Alaska, near the Aleutian Islands, on Jan. 28, deciding not to shoot it down right away.
When the balloon moved over the Atlantic, it was flying at a height that limited how it could be taken out. The Pentagon ultimately selected a pair of F-22s, its most advanced plane in air-to-air combat, and a pair of F-15s from the Massachusetts Air National Guard, which can reach higher altitudes than other aircraft.
In clear, sunny skies, the jets struck just off the coast of South Carolina — still in American airspace, but in a pocket where debris could fall into relatively shallow 50-foot waters, where Navy divers and other sailors could recover the remnants.
As Navy and Coast Guard teams pulled debris from the water two days later, VanHerck told reporters on Feb. 6 that similar surveillance balloons had appeared previously over the United States without U.S. military officials detecting them. Those incidents, he said, were discovered only retroactively, raising questions about why they had not been detected at the time. “That’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out,” VanHerck said.
Three days later, on Feb. 9, military personnel with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, spotted a mysterious flying object roughly the size of a car soaring northeast across Alaska at a height of about 40,000 feet. At such an altitude, the Pentagon concluded, the object posed a threat to civilian airliners.
At 1:45 p.m. Eastern time on Feb. 10, the Pentagon dispatched two F-22 Raptors that destroyed the object, raining its debris onto snow and ice near Alaska’s frozen coast. U.S. military personnel attempted to recover the remnants but struggled through the subzero windchills and have so far come up empty.
Hours later, NORAD radar spotted another object soaring over Alaska, and as it crossed into Canadian airspace on Saturday, Biden spoke with Trudeau. They agreed the object should be shot down, and U.S. and Canadian jets were deployed to go after it, with an F-22 eventually bringing it down over the Yukon with a Sidewinder missile.
Before that shoot-down was complete, the radar picked up indications of yet another flying object about 70 miles north of the U.S.-Canada border, heading toward Montana. VanHerck scrambled F-15 fighter jets from Portland, Ore., but the pilots did not find anything as darkness closed in and military personnel lost track of the object on the radar. NORAD released a statement describing the incident as a “radar anomaly."
Several hours later, early on Super Bowl Sunday, an object appeared on radar over Montana, tracking east to Wisconsin. VanHerck said he believes it was likely the same item, but it’s difficult to be sure.
Senior U.S. military officials scrambled aircraft again, this time F-16 fighters from the Minnesota Air National Guard. They monitored the item moving east over Lake Michigan and then across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and over Lake Huron.
Two F-16s launched one Sidewinder missile each, the first one missing and the second striking its target, U.S. defense officials said. The object drifted as it fell, VanHerck said, “most likely” landing in the Canadian side of Lake Huron. Milley later said that the water in the area was likely about 200 feet deep.
U.S. officials have yet to recover debris from any of the three objects.
Alex Horton and Shane Harris contributed to this report."