President Joe Biden told CNN that the shoot down a “high-altitude object” hovering over Alaska on Friday “was a success,” shortly after American national security officials disclosed that the commander-in-chief gave the US military approval to take the action.
The announcement – marking the second time American fighter jets have taken down an object flying over US airspace in a little less than a week – comes after the administration was subjected to a slew of questions about the timing of Biden’s decision to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina last Saturday. This time, the president took more decisive action to swiftly take down the object near Alaska, but key questions about the origin of the object and its functionality remain unanswered.
After the object was first detected on Thursday, F-35 fighter jets were sent to up to investigate, according to a US official. The object, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said during a White House press briefing, was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight.”
Along with the effort by F-35s on Thursday, fighter aircraft also engaged with the object again Friday morning. Both engagements yielded “limited” information, Kirby told reporters.
“We were able to get some fighter aircrafts up and around it before the order to shoot it down, and the pilots assessment was this was not manned,” Kirby added.
The president was first briefed Thursday night “as soon as the Pentagon had enough information,” Kirby said, adding that at the recommendation of the Pentagon, Biden ordered the military “to down the object – and they did.”
The object was brought down by fighter aircraft assigned to US Northern Command. And US officials have said the object was taken down over frozen Arctic Ocean waters near the Canadian border, about 10 miles off the north coast of Alaska. The US expects to recover the debris, Kirby said.
Biden, asked later on Friday if he had any comment on the object shot down over Alaska, told CNN, “It was a success.”
An F-22 fighter jet from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska took down the object “at 1:45 p.m. eastern standard time today, within US sovereign airspace over US territorial water,” Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters on Friday.
He said the object was shot down by the F-22 with an AIM-9X, the same type of aircraft and missile used to shoot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
A US official noted there was not a serious concern about collateral damage to people or property on the ground when the decision to shoot it down was made. US Northern Command and NORAD wanted to shoot down the object during the daytime because the brief hours of sunlight in the far north made it easier to spot for a fast-moving jet trying to find and follow a slow-moving object, the official said.
The object did not appear to have any surveillance equipment, according to a US official, which would make it both smaller and likely less sophisticated than the Chinese balloon shot down last weekend.
Military officials have expressed confidence that the object was not an asset belonging to the US military or government.
Small object that posed a threat to civilian flights
Ryder said that the Defense Department had no details about the object’s “capabilities, purpose or origin.” He added the object posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight, noting that “the object was about the size of a small car, so not similar in size or shape to the high altitude surveillance balloon that was taken down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.”
US Northern Command’s Alaska Command coordinated the operation with assistance from the Alaska Air National Guard, Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ryder said.
The object brought down over Alaska was much smaller than the Chinese surveillance balloon downed over territorial waters on Saturday. The payload of the Chinese balloon downed last Saturday was described by US officials as approximately the size of three buses, whereas the high-altitude object taken down on Friday has been described as being the size of a small car. The US has not attributed the second flying object to any country or entity.
“We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now. We don’t know who owns it – whether it’s state-owned or corporate-owned or privately-owned, we just don’t know,” Kirby said.
The object “did not appear to be self-maneuvering, and therefore, (was) at the mercy of prevailing winds,” making it “much less predictable,” said Kirby.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction Friday in the area around Deadhorse, Alaska, as the military took action against the object.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that he had supported the decision to take down the object.
“This afternoon, an object that violated American airspace was brought down. I was 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,” Trudeau tweeted.
Since news broke last week about the Chinese balloon that was floating over US airspace, new details have emerged about what’s now understood to be a global surveillance operation by China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army.
On Thursday, officials revealed that they believe the spy balloons the US has discovered are part of a large fleet that is conducting surveillance operations globally. The US has traced the balloons to 40 countries across five continents.
The US has developed a method to track China’s spy balloon fleet within the last year, CNN reported exclusively on Friday.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s DJ Judd, Michael Conte and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.