Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on the Department of Defense’s 2021 budget request during a hearing on Capitol Hill, March 4, 2020. (Lisa Ferdinando, DOD)
WASHINGTON — The American public may know by week’s end the administration’s strategy on unidentified flying objects going forward, but some questions about three recent ones shot down by the U.S. military may not be answered for a long time, if ever.
Debris from the three low-altitude objects downed by U.S. Air Force air-to-air missiles last weekend hasn’t yet been found, and one of the missiles that missed its target is now at the bottom of Lake Huron, according to White House and Pentagon officials Tuesday.
The lake is bordered by the state of Michigan and Canada. Officials said Monday they believe the debris from the object crashed into Canadian waters.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday “the first shot missed” when two U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets were ordered to shoot the object over the lake.
“We go to great lengths to make sure the air space is clear, and the backdrop is clear to the max effect of range of the missile,” Milley said.
“In this case the missile landed harmlessly in the water of Lake Huron, we tracked it all the way down. And we made sure the air space was clear of any commercial, civilian or recreational traffic.”
The U.S. Air Force did not immediately answer an inquiry about whether the military will recover the missile, an AIM-9X Sidewinder.
‘Tough conditions’ for recovery
Three objects — about which officials have given little detail — were each shot down Friday, Saturday and Sunday over Alaska sea ice, Canadian wilderness and Lake Huron, respectively.
“We’re taking this day by day and doing the best we can to try to locate the debris and then develop a plan to recover it,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday on a call with reporters.
“We’re dealing with some pretty tough conditions here,” Kirby said.
The incidents followed the Feb. 4 downing of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon 6 nautical miles off the coast of South Carolina. China claims the high-altitude balloon, flying at 60,000 feet, was collecting weather data.
U.S. officials say the 200-foot maneuverable balloon carrying equipment the size of a jetliner was part of a vast Chinese surveillance operation that has spanned dozens of countries.
But little has been revealed about the three unmanned objects detected by U.S. and Canadian radar that were moving with the winds between 20,000 and 40,000 feet — except that the object shot down Friday just off Alaska’s Northern Slope was the size of a car, officials said.
“Thus far, we haven’t seen any indication or anything that points specifically to the idea that these three objects were part of the PRC’s spy balloon program, or that they were definitively involved in external intelligence collection efforts,” Kirby said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
The U.S. is considering the scenario that the objects could be privately owned commercial or research instruments, but when asked if anyone has claimed the objects, Kirby said no.
Several government agencies are meeting this week to discuss policy and decision-making for shooting down unidentified objects now that the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, has adjusted its radar to detect smaller, slower and lower altitude craft. A plan is expected by the end of the week, Kirby said.
U.S. senators who are eager for answers about the objects received a private briefing from Pentagon officials Tuesday morning.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters after the briefing that all three objects were “very, very small” and that at least one of them was carrying a payload.
The Idaho Republican indicated the objects were smaller than a car but wouldn’t give further details.
“That’s probably all I better say about that,” Risch said.
Sen. Tom Cotton, who sits on the Senate’s Armed Services and Intelligence committees, called on President Joe Biden to address the nation.
“Americans are worried, they’re concerned and they’re interested, and they have a right to know why President Biden directed the actions that he did over the last week,” the Arkansas Republican said after the classified briefing.
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said he thinks the president should wait for more details before giving a speech.
“There’s a lot of concern and conversation, that’s understandable. If I were advising the president on this, I’d say wait until you’ve got clarity about what’s happening, and a clear path forward about what we will do and should do with regards to both other countries’ surveillance programs and resolving the issue of objects of which we’re not really certain, their origin and purpose,” said Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kirby maintains the “deliberative process” Biden took to order the downing of the unidentified crafts came at the recommendation of the military over concerns that the objects posed a potential surveillance threat and a danger to civilian air traffic, which travels around 30,000 feet.
When asked by reporters whether the president will deliver an address, Kirby said he had “nothing to speak to with respect to the president’s public appearances” and said that Biden is being updated on developments.
Senior reporter Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.
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