US shoots down 4 objects in 8 days, unprecedented in peacetime

WASHINGTON (AP) — A US fighter jet shot down an “unidentified object” over Lake Huron on Sunday on orders from President Joe Biden. It was the fourth such downing in eight days and the latest military strike in an extraordinary chain of events over US airspace that Pentagon officials believe has no peacetime precedent.

Part of the reason for the repeated downings is a “raised alert” after a Chinese spy balloon appeared over U.S. airspace in late January, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command, said in a briefing with reporters.

Since then, fighter jets also shot down objects over Canada and Alaska last week. Pentagon officials said they posed no security threat, but so little was known about them that Pentagon officials didn’t rule out anything — not even UFOs.

“We’ve been taking a closer look at our airspace at these altitudes, including upgrading our radar, which could at least partially explain the increase,” said Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.

US authorities have made it clear that they are constantly on the lookout for unfamiliar radar signals, and it’s not uncommon to close airspace as a precaution to assess them. But the unusually confident response raised questions about whether such use of force was justified, especially since administration officials said the objects were not a major national security issue and that the shootings were done purely as a precautionary measure.

VanHerck said the US had adjusted its radar so it could track slower objects. “With some adjustments we’ve been able to better categorize radar traces now,” he said, “and that’s why I think you’re seeing that, plus there’s an increased alert to look for that information.”

He added, “I believe this is the first time within the United States or American airspace that NORAD or the United States Northern Command has taken kinetic action against an airborne object.”

When asked if officials had ruled out aliens, VanHerck said, “I haven’t ruled anything out at this point.”

Pentagon officials said they were still trying to determine what exactly the objects were and said they had considered using the jets’ cannons instead of missiles, but it proved too difficult. She made a sharp distinction between the three balloons launched this weekend and the balloon from China.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz tweeted that airmen from the 148th Fighter Wing, a fighter unit of the Air National Guard in Duluth, shot down the object over Lake Huron.

The extraordinary air defense activity began in late January when a white bullet that officials said originated in China appeared over the U.S. and hovered over the nation for days before warplanes shot it down off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This event was held via live stream. Many Americans are fascinated by the drama that unfolds in the skies as fighter jets attempt to shoot down objects.

The latest crash was first spotted over Montana Saturday night, but it was initially believed to be an anomaly. Radar picked it up again Sunday hovering over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and it flew over Lake Huron, Pentagon officials said Sunday.

US and Canadian authorities earlier on Sunday restricted part of the airspace over the lake as planes scrambled to intercept the object and try to identify it. According to a senior administration official, the object was octagonal, with hanging cords, but had no apparent payload. It flew at about 20,000 feet, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Meanwhile, US officials were still trying to pinpoint two other objects shot down by F-22 fighter jets and were working to determine if China was responsible, as concerns escalate over what Washington said was a large-scale Beijing’s air surveillance program escalated.

An object shot down over Canada’s Yukon on Saturday was described by US officials as a balloon significantly smaller than the balloon — the size of three school buses — that was hit by a missile on February 4. A flying object shot down over Alaska’s remote north coast Friday was more cylindrical and was described as some kind of airship.

According to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press to discuss the ongoing investigation, it was believed both had a payload either attached to or suspended from them. Officials could not say who launched the objects and were trying to determine their origin.

The three objects were much smaller, different in appearance and flying at lower altitudes than the suspected spy balloon that crashed into the Atlantic after the US missile strike.

Officials said the other three objects were inconsistent with the fleet of Chinese air surveillance balloons that were targeting more than 40 countries and stretched at least as far back as the Trump administration.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told ABC’s This Week that US officials were working quickly to recover debris. Using shorthand to describe the objects as balloons, he said the US military and intelligence agencies are “focused like a laser” on gathering and accumulating the information and then putting together a comprehensive analysis.

“The bottom line is that we didn’t know about these balloons until a few months ago,” said Schumer, DN.Y., of the spying program that has linked the government to the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military. “It’s crazy that we didn’t know.”

Eight days ago, F-22 jets shot down the large white balloon that had hovered over the United States for days at an altitude of about 60,000 feet. US officials immediately blamed China, saying the balloon was equipped to detect and collect intelligence signals and could maneuver itself. White House officials said improved surveillance skills helped spot it.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that went off course. Beijing said the US “overreacted” by shooting it down.

Then on Friday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the combined US-Canadian organization that jointly defends the airspace over the two nations, spotted and shot down an object near sparsely populated Deadhorse, Alaska.

Later that evening, NORAD spotted a second object flying at high altitude over Alaska, US officials said. It was crossing Canadian airspace and was over the Yukon, a remote area, on Saturday when it was shot down by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In both incidents, objects were flying at about 40,000 feet. The object flew at 20,000 feet on Sunday.

The cases have increased diplomatic tensions between the United States and China, raised questions about the extent of American surveillance by Beijing and sparked days of criticism from Republican lawmakers of the administration’s response.

Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Michael Balsamo, Ellen Knickmeyer, and Tara Copp contributed to this report. US shoots down 4 objects in 8 days, unprecedented in peacetime

Dais Johnston

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