Details are still limited, but a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor has shot down a relatively high-flying "object" over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Alaska. What exactly this may have been and who it might have belonged to are unknown, but this does come less than a week after an F-22 brought down what American officials say was a Chinese surveillance balloon after it traveled through U.S. and Canadian airspace for a number of days.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby first disclosed the new shootdown, which occurred at approximately 1:45 PM EST, at a press conference today. Pentagon Press Secretary U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder gave additional information at a subsequent press conference that wrapped just moments ago. Neither could provide specific details about the object, but said it was flying at approximately 40,000 feet and presented a potential hazard to civilian flight traffic. It was brought down out of an abundance of caution.
The U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) first detected the object on February 9 and tracked it using a ground radar. Fighter aircraft were subsequently sent to intercept and attempt to identify it. NSC spokesperson Kirby said the relatively small size and slow speed of the object, together with the initial intercept taking place in darkness, limited what information could be quickly gleaned.
Where exactly the object was shot down and where the wreckage fell is not immediately clear. Kirby said that the incident had taken place somewhere in the northeastern corner of Alaska near the border with Canada. Significant debris is now reportedly sitting atop of sea ice and efforts are now being made to recover if for analysis.
He also said the object did not appear to be readily maneuverable or have a substantial payload. Ryder said the object was "about the size of a small car." This is all in stark contrast to details we've learned so far about the Chinese spy balloon, which was ultimately shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. That balloon, which had a payload U.S. officials described as being the size of a smaller airliner and as weighing thousands of pounds, was said to have the ability to maneuver and had been soaring at an altitude of between 60,000 and 70,000 feet.
It remains to be seen whether this object is another balloon that can be tied to an expanisive Chinese high-alitude balloon surveillance program that has been reportedly been conducted for years around the world. At the same time, it underscores the new attention being given to such objects, many of which appear to have been largely ignored in the past.
The U.S. government's disclosure and attribution of the Chinese surveillance balloon last week quickly raised questions about whether this could account for at least some sightings of so-called unidentifed aerial phenomena (UAP), also colloquially known as unidentified flying objects (UFO). This is something The War Zone has been calling attention to for years, as you can read more about in this detailed feature.
The Biden administration continues to be criticized for various aspects of its response to the Chinese surveillance balloon incident, including the decision not to shoot it down when it first entered U.S. territorial airspace over Alaska.
"As an Alaskan, I am so angry. I want to use other words. But I’m not going to," Lisa Murkowski, a Republican Senator from Alaska, told reporters following a classified briefing on that incident yesterday. "It seems to me the clear message to China is: ‘We got free range in Alaska.'"
The decision to shootdown this new object could very well reflect new policies for handling these incidents that are already being implemented.
We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
UPDATE: 5:09 P.M. EST:
At 1:45 P.M. EST Friday, a two-ship of F-22 Raptors out of Elmendorf Air Force Base flew up to meet the object, traveling at about 40,000 feet and one of them fired an AIM-9X missile that destroyed it, Ryder told reporters.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has not reached out to his Chinese counterpart, said Ryder.
Ryder disagreed with any assertion that the President reacted to political pressure that has been building since he allowed the Chinese spy balloon to traverse the country last week.
“We're gonna judge each of these on its merits,” he said. “There was no indication at this time that it was maneuverable. But again, we'll know more.”
There were at least two separate flights of U.S. aircraft to determine what the object was, Kirby said, one last night and the one today.
Pilot observations determined that the object was unmanned, Ryder said.
Ryder declined to say if any effort was made to jam the object before it was shot down.
Asked whether the Pentagon was reassessing the need for counter-balloon or counter-object capabilities at that altitude, Ryder said more is being learned.
“We're continuing to learn more and more about this program, which enables us to identify and track objects,” he said, adding that the U.S. will “invest [and] ensure that we're continuing to protect our skies in our airspace.”
Ryder said trying to suggest there were lessons learned from last week’s balloon incursion that helped track this object was “kind of a little bit of apples and oranges.”
“NORAD/NORTHCOM maintains the ability to track objects,” he said. “They tracked this as it approached and entered into U.S. airspace. Again, we're still assessing what this object was. So I don't know that we learned anything new as a result of that other than, again, I think we're all - to include the media and the public - very attuned to balloons at the moment.”
“The NORAD and NORTHCOM commander does not have the authority necessary to take down an object if it's not posing potential hostile intent or actions,” said Ryder. “However, given the fact that ... this object was operating at an altitude that posed a reasonable threat to civilian air traffic, after consultation with the Secretary and the President, of course, the president on our advice gave the order to take it down we took it down.”
Kirby denied the shootdown of this object so early in its appearance over the U.S. represented any shift in U.S. policy.
“I wouldn't derive from these two incidents, some sort of policy that comes out of it,” said Kirby. “The president will always act in the best interest of the American people and international security. Last week, we were talking about a surveillance asset that was purposely flown over the continental United States. In the case today we're talking about an object - again, we don't know a lot about it - but that its altitude represented a potential threat to the safety of flying customers, civil air traffic.”
UPDATE: 6:10 P.M. EST:
According to the Federal Aviation Administration's Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, temporary flight restrictions (TFR) are in place in a block of airspace just off the coast of northeastern Alaska. The area covered by the restrictions is to the northeast of the town of Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, where a major oil field is located. It is also near the now-defunct Bullen Point Air Force Station, which the U.S. Air Force had operated until 2007.
The TFR has been in place since approximately 2:30 P.M. EST, or around 45 minutes after the shootdown. At least one other TFR was in place ahead of the shootdown, according to an earlier story from the Anchorage Daily News.
The full text of the NOTAM associated with the TFR that is in place now is as follows:
"FDC 3/4532 ZAN PART 1 OF 3 AK..AIRSPACE DEADHORSE, AK..TEMPORARY FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS. PURSUANT TO 49 USC 40103(B)(3), THE FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION (FAA) CLASSIFIES THE AIRSPACE DEFINED IN THIS NOTAM AS 'NTL DEFENSE AIRSPACE'. PILOTS WHO DO NOT ADHERE TO THE FOLLOWING PROC MAY BE INTERCEPTED, DETAINED AND INTERVIEWED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT/ SECURITY PERSONNEL. ANY OF THE FOLLOWING ADDITIONAL ACTIONS MAY ALSO BE TAKEN AGAINST A PILOT WHO DOES NOT COMPLY WITH THE RQMNTS OR ANY SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS OR PROC ANNOUNCED IN THIS NOTAM: A) THE FAA MAY TAKE ADMINISTRATIVE ACTION, INCLUDING IMPOSING CIVIL PENALTIES AND THE SUSPENSION OR REVOCATION OF AIRMEN CERTIFICATES; OR B) THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MAY PURSUE CRIMINAL CHARGES, INCLUDING CHARGES UNDER 49 USC SECTION 46307; C) THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MAY USE DEADLY FORCE AGAINST THE AIRBORNE ACFT, IF IT IS DETERMINED THAT THE ACFT POSES AN IMMINENT SECURITY THREAT; OR D) UAS OPERATORS WHO DO NOT COMPLY WITH APPLICABLE AIRSPACE RESTRICTIONS ARE WARNED THAT PURSUANT TO 10 U.S.C. SECTION 130I AND 2302101930-PERM END PART 1 OF 3 FDC 3/4532 ZAN PART 2 OF 3 AK..AIRSPACE DEADHORSE, AK..TEMPORARY FLIGHT 6 U.S.C. SECTION 124N, THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE (DOD), THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY (DHS) OR THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DOJ) MAY TAKE SECURITY ACTION THAT RESULTS IN THE INTERFERENCE, DISRUPTION, SEIZURE, DAMAGING, OR DESTRUCTION OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT DEEMED TO POSE A CREDIBLE SAFETY OR SECURITY THREAT TO PROTECTED PERSONNEL, FACILITIES, OR ASSETS. PURSUANT TO 14 CFR 99.7, SPECIAL SECURITY INSTRUCTIONS, ALL ACFT FLT OPS ARE PROHIBITED: WI AN AREA DEFINED AS 703557N1463405W TO 702934N1465705W TO 702202N1463751W TO 702821N1461458W TO THE POINT OF ORIGIN. SFC-10,000' MSL EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. EXCEPTIONS: A) NATIONAL SECURITY ACFT OPS UNDER DIRECTION OF DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE; AND B) LAW ENFORCEMENT, AIR AMBULANCE, AND 2302101930-PERM END PART 2 OF 3 FDC 3/4532 ZAN PART 3 OF 3 AK..AIRSPACE DEADHORSE, AK..TEMPORARY FLIGHT OTHER URGENT GOVERNMENTAL RESPONSE ACFT OPS WITH AUTHORIZATION FROM ATC (ATC MUST SECURE PRE-APPROVAL BY THE ON DUTY NATIONAL TACTICAL SECURITY OPERATIONS AIR TRAFFIC SECURITY COORDINATOR). ALL AIRCRAFT, WHICH ARE ALREADY AIRBORNE WITHIN THE DEFINED AIRSPACE WHEN THIS TFR BECOMES EFFECTIVE, MUST EXIT THE AREA USING THE MOST EXPEDITIOUS ROUTE CONSISTENT WITH SAFETY AND IN COIORDINATION WITH ATC AS APPROPRIATE. THE ANR AOC TEL 907-552-6222 IS THE CDN FACILITY. 2302101930-PERM END PART 3 OF 3"
A number of U.S. military fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters are now supporting the recovery effort, including U.S. Army CH-47 Chinooks. A picture has emerged online that appears to show three CH-47s en route to the area.
Unspecified HC-130 Hercules aircraft and HH-60 helicopters are also supporting the recovery operation.
ABC News has now reported that the "object" shot down off the coast of Alaska was "cylindrical and silver-ish gray," according to an unnamed U.S. official. "All I say is that it wasn't 'flying' with any sort of propulsion, so if that is 'balloon-like' well – we just don't have enough at this point."
UPDATE 8:03 P.M. EST
Ryder provided answers to questions asked during the briefing.
Q: Is the recovery happening on ice or in the water? What military units are involved?
A: Recovery is happening in a mix of ice and snow. Units located in Alaska under the direction of U.S. Northern Command, along with the Alaskan National Guard, are involved in the response.
Q: What direction was the object coming from last night? What aircraft were observing it?
A: The object was traveling north easterly across Alaska. A two-ship flight of F-35s conducted identification of the object. An F-22 out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson - assigned to U.S. Northern Command - shot down the object with an AIM-9X missile near Deadhorse, Alaska. These missions were supported with aerial assets from the Alaska Air National Guard.
Author's note: The incredible image of the Chinese surveillance balloon in this article was taken by photographer Tyler Schlitt of LiveStormChasers.com. Make sure to check out his work, including on his awesome Facebook page linked here.
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