The three as-yet-unidentified aerial objects shot down by the US last week probably simply had a “benign purpose”, the White House acknowledged Tuesday, drawing a distinction between them and the huge Chinese balloon that traversed the US earlier. with a presumed goal. purpose of surveillance.
“The intelligence community is considering as the main explanation that these could just be balloons attached to some commercial or benign purpose,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.
Authorities also revealed that a missile fired at one of the three objects, over Lake Huron on Sunday, missed its intended target and landed in the water before a second successfully hit it.
The new details came as the Biden administration’s actions over the past two weeks faced fresh scrutiny in Congress.
First, US warplanes did not shoot down what officials described as a Chinese spy balloon until after it had crossed much of the United States, citing security concerns. The military then deployed F-22 fighters with heat-seeking missiles to quickly shoot down what were likely harmless objects.
Taken together, the actions raised political and security questions about whether the Biden administration overreacted after facing Republican criticism for reacting too slowly to the big balloon.
Even as more information about the three objects emerges, questions remain about what they were, who sent them, and how the United States might respond to unidentified aerial objects in the future.
Unresolved questions remain about the original balloon, including what spy capabilities it had and whether it was transmitting signals while flying over sensitive US military sites.
Little is known about the three objects shot down over three consecutive days, Friday through Sunday, in part because it has been challenging to recover debris from remote locations in the Canadian Yukon, off northern Alaska and near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Lake Huron. .
So far, officials have no indication they were part of a larger surveillance operation along with the balloon that was shot down off the South Carolina coast on February 4.
“At this point we don’t see anything that points to being part of the PRC spy balloon program,” Kirby told reporters, referring to the PRC. Nor is it likely that the objects were “anti-US intelligence gathering of any kind, that’s the indication now.”
No country or private company has come forward to claim any of the objects, Kirby said. They do not appear to have been operated by the United States government.
Kirby had hinted on Monday that the three objects were different in substantial respects from the globe, including their size. And his comments Tuesday marked a clear effort by the White House to draw a line between the globe, which officials believe was part of a Chinese military program that has operated on five continents, and objects the administration believes could simply be part of some research or commercial effort.
In Washington, Pentagon officials met with senators for a classified briefing on the shootings. Lawmakers conveyed their constituents’ concerns about the need to keep them informed and made sure the objects were not extraterrestrial in nature but wanted much more detail.
Still, Sen. Thom Tillis said recent successful interceptions are likely to have a “calming influence” and make future takedowns less likely.
Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters after the briefing that he did not believe the objects posed a threat.
“They’re trying to figure it out, you know there’s a lot of junk up there. So you have to find out what is the threat and what is not. You see something, you shouldn’t always have to tear it down,” Graham said.
Biden directed national security adviser Jake Sullivan to form an interagency team to study the detection, analysis, and “disposition of unidentified aerial objects” that could pose safety or security risks.
The recent objects have also drawn the attention of world leaders, including in Canada, where one was shot down on Saturday, and in the United Kingdom, where the prime minister ordered a security review.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that at least three flying objects seen in Japanese airspace since 2019 are strongly believed to have been Chinese spy balloons.
Meanwhile, US officials confirmed that a first missile aimed at the object over Lake Huron landed in the water, but that a second hit its target.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military did everything possible to ensure that none of the attacks put civilians at risk, including identifying the likely size of the debris field and the maximum effective range. of the missiles used.
“We are very, very careful to make sure that those shots are really safe,” General Milley said. “And that is the orientation of the president. Shoot it down, but be sure to minimize collateral damage and preserve the safety of the American people.”
The object shot down on Sunday was the third in as many days to be shot from the skies.
The White House said the objects differed in size and maneuverability from the Chinese surveillance balloon that US warplanes shot down earlier this month, but their altitude was low enough to pose a risk to civilian air traffic.
Climatic challenges and the remote locations where the three objects were shot down over Alaska, Canada, and Lake Huron have impeded recovery efforts thus far.
General Milley was in Brussels with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with members of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group on additional weapons and defense needs for Kiev ahead of Russia’s anticipated spring offensive.