Live Updates: Officials Answer Questions on Objects Spotted in the Sky

1 month ago The New York Times

The downing of a Chinese spy balloon earlier this month was the first in a series of incidents in North American skies.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government and Canada have been busy intercepting unidentified flying objects in the skies, shooting down one on Friday over Alaska, another on Saturday over the Yukon Territory and a third over Michigan on Sunday.

The two countries are still trying to identify and recover the objects, but those efforts are likely to be hampered because of the remote locations off the Arctic coast of Alaska and the rugged Canadian wilderness.

The incidents came a week after the United States blasted a Chinese spy balloon out of the sky that was equipped with an antenna meant to pinpoint the locations of communications devices and was capable of intercepting calls made on those devices.

The balloon, which traversed America for several days, transfixed the public and focused attention both in Washington and across the country on the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.

Here is what we know about the episodes.

What happened over Alaska, the Yukon and Michigan?

On Friday, the U.S. military shot down an unidentified flying object over the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. Troops with U.S. Northern Command were working near Deadhorse, Alaska, with Alaska National Guard units, the F.B.I. and local law enforcement to recover the object and determine its nature, Defense Department officials have said.

Then on Saturday, an American F-22 with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is operated jointly by the United States and Canada, downed the object over the Yukon Territory. NORAD had sent American fighter jets, which were soon joined by Canadian fighters, to track the object.

The F-22 used a Sidewinder air-to-air missile to down the object over Canadian territory, the same type that was used to obliterate the two previous flying objects.

The United States took down another object on Sunday over Lake Huron using an F-16 fighter jet that shot the object with a Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

Why were these objects shot down faster?

The Chinese spy balloon traversed the country before it was taken down earlier this month, allowing American officials to observe it and collect intelligence. It was flying at 60,000 feet and didn’t pose a danger to aircraft.

The object above Michigan was flying at 20,000 feet and was a potential danger to civil aviation. U.S. and Canadian officials say the objects shot down on Friday and Saturday were also flying lower than the spy balloon, posing a greater danger to civilian aircraft.

Pentagon officials also said that falling debris from the spy balloon could have hit people on the ground. But the other objects were downed over water or sparsely populated areas, minimizing the risk of falling debris.

The spy balloon has also created a state of hypervigilance. Even though it is rare for the United States to shoot down unidentified flying objects, tensions with China remained high after the balloon was spotted almost two weeks ago in American skies.

How are the latest objects different from the Chinese balloon?

American officials are unsure what the latest objects are, much less their purpose or who sent them. Beijing has acknowledged that the balloon was China’s but said it was for weather research.

John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, has said that the object shot down near Alaska was “much, much smaller than the spy balloon that we took down” and that “the way it was described to me was roughly the size of a small car, as opposed to the payload that was like two or three buses.”

U.S. and Canadian officials have described the object over the Yukon as cylindrical and said it too was smaller than the spy balloon shot down over the Atlantic the previous weekend.

The object that was downed on Sunday had an octagonal structure with strings hanging off, U.S. officials said.

The top military commander overseeing North American airspace has described the Chinese balloon as about 200 feet tall and weighing thousands of pounds.

What was the spy balloon collecting?

This remains a big question. Officials do not yet know what information the balloon was supposed to be stealing as it made its way across the country.

The balloon had a signals intelligence array — fancy spy speak for an antenna that can locate communications devices and listen in to them. But officials do not yet know if that array was meant to gather calls made on military radios or from ordinary mobile phones or something else altogether.

How many spy balloons have there been?

Balloons are hard to pick up on radar. Many of the first Chinese spy balloons that were observed near U.S. military exercises or bases were not identified as surveillance tools. Instead, they were classified as unidentified aerial phenomena, modern-day Pentagon jargon for U.F.O.s.

Over the past 18 months, the United States began learning more about the Chinese spy balloon program. As officials reviewed some previous cases of unidentified aerial phenomena, they determined that they were spy balloons. A review of the old data showed that at least three spy balloons entered U.S. airspace during the Trump administration. There was at least one additional visit during the Biden administration.

But all of those previous incidents were relatively short — not the dayslong transit of this month’s balloon.

Was this part of a wider Chinese surveillance program?

China has developed a spy balloon program as a complement to its fleet of reconnaissance satellites, American officials said, with a mission to collect information across the world.

Because the capabilities of the spy balloons are not yet perfectly understood, it is not certain if they gather different information from China’s satellites. Nevertheless, officials said, at the very least the balloons can linger longer over a site than a satellite. And while reconnaissance satellites are often focused on imagery, the balloons appear to be mostly about collecting communications.

Some officials say the spy balloon program has been focused in the Pacific region, collecting information on American bases and allied military operations.

And of course, the Chinese do not just use balloons to conduct surveillance at military bases. Some classified reports suggest they are also using advanced technologies to collect information about the U.S. military.

Is this a big deal or not?


To be clear, the balloon saga is not comparable to an earthquake in Turkey that killed more than 20,000. Nor is it comparable to the war in Ukraine that is set to enter a second year.

That said, the spy balloon incident will complicate the relationship between the two most powerful countries on Earth.

Some policymakers and lawmakers in Washington have been arguing for years that the U.S. public has not taken the challenge of China seriously enough — prioritizing the country’s cheap mobile phones and entertaining videos on its platform TikTok over concerns about an authoritarian state that bolsters its power through the intrusive surveillance of its people.

But the balloon ordeal was a big enough deal for the State Department to cancel Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s planned trip to China — the first by a Biden cabinet secretary to Beijing — without rescheduling it. When he canceled the trip, Mr. Blinken said the entry of the balloon was a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law.”

What is the plan for recovering debris?

Navy divers have been working to gather debris of the balloon since Feb. 5 for America’s own intelligence-gathering purposes, Pentagon and F.B.I. officials said. The recovery effort is expected to take days.

The balloon itself was quickly retrieved, as well as some wiring that was floating on the ocean surface. But most of the electronics were in the balloon payload, carried underneath. The remains of that are scattered across the ocean floor, albeit in the relatively shallow waters off the South Carolina coast.

The dive teams are handing over the recovered material to the F.B.I., which will take it to its lab in Quantico, Va. What state it will be in, and how much can be learned from it, remains an open question. It is likely that the debris from Alaska and the Yukon will also be taken to the F.B.I.’s high-tech laboratory in Quantico to be examined by experts in the U.S. intelligence community.

What happens next?

The Biden administration has continued to declassify and share information it has learned about the spy balloon, bringing in allied and partner nations for briefings about China’s surveillance programs.

The diplomatic push is a sign that the administration intends to use the incident to rally allies and convince them that China’s global ambitions could involve infringements of their sovereignty.

Beijing was angry over the United States’ decision to shoot down the balloon, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry described as “excessive.” China has maintained that the balloon was a civilian device for meteorological purposes.

Points of friction between Beijing and the United States are becoming increasingly common. China fired a barrage of missiles in the wake of last year’s visit to Taiwan by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Representative Kevin McCarthy said before succeeding her this year that he would also like to visit the self-governing island, which China considers its territory.

Katie Rogers and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.
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