The White House has determined that China has a “high-altitude balloon programme” for intelligence gathering.
It comes as tensions are mounting between the US and China after the US shot down a fourth unidentified object over North American airspace.
It was downed over Lake Huron in Michigan at 2.42pm local time on Sunday on President Joe Biden’s orders and came after objects were shot down in Alaska and Canada on Friday and Saturday.
John Kirby, the national security council coordinator for strategic communications, said on Monday that the US is still working to “better understand” foreign intelligence collection efforts.
“We were able to determine that China has a high-altitude balloon programme for intelligence that’s connected to the People’s Liberation Army,” he said at a news conference.
He says the balloons have provided “limited capabilities” but in the future as technology advances, it could become “more valuable to them”.
Mr Kirby says because the US cannot “definitively” identify what the risks of the balloons are, they reacted out of “an abundance of caution”.
Mr Kirby said the objects were not manned and there were no signs they had manoeuvring or propulsion capabilities.
He added: “We did assess that their altitudes were considerably lower than the Chinese high-altitude balloon and did pose a threat to civilian commercial air traffic.
“And while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out.”
He said the missions were “conducted successfully and safely”.
Efforts are under way to recover what remains of the objects to understand what they are, but the ones in Alaska and Canada are in remote terrain, making it more difficult to find them.
Outside of recovery operations, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) is continuing to monitor the situation, Mr Kirby said.
‘No indication of aliens’
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, also addressing the media at the news conference, emphasised that the American people should hear “there is no indication of aliens” from the White House.
She joked with the journalists gathered for the briefing: “I loved ET the movie, but I am just going to leave it there.”
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Elsewhere, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters from Brussels that the “safety and security” of the American people is President Joe Biden’s “number one priority”.
He said: “I want to reassure Americans that these objects do not present a military threat to anyone on the ground. They do, however, present a risk to civil aviation, and potentially an intelligence collection threat. And we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
He added that the US has not been able to “definitively assess what these recent objects are”.
‘Very serious situation’
Earlier, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the invasion of North American airspace is “a very serious situation” and is being taken seriously.
He said the issue will be part of discussions when he meets US President Biden.
Mr Trudeau said search and recovery efforts for the object shot down by a US fighter jet over Yukon territory on his orders on Saturday were under way, but the weather was posing some challenges in the search for debris.
“Obviously there is some sort of pattern in there, the fact we are seeing this in a significant degree over the past week is a cause for interest and close attention,” he said.
ET jokes aside, this could escalate very easily
There was a joke about ET from the White House podium today.
But beyond the bemusement, even amusement, over these UFO shoot-downs, there is a very serious side to this.
We know one of the four “objects” was Chinese. The balloon shot down off South Carolina was claimed by Beijing as a “weather balloon”. It’s possible, even probable, that the others were Chinese too; all part of an attempt by China to fish for intelligence or simply to test America’s red lines.
Here’s the concern though. The Chinese will want an opportunity to retaliate, at the very least for the shooting down of their “weather balloon” last weekend. You can see how this could easily escalate. The Americans routinely operate surveillance aircraft in the Pacific region.
At the White House, an official said repeatedly: “There is no US surveillance aircraft in Chinese airspace.” But he wasn’t answering the question he was asked. Does the United States have any surveillance aircraft in airspace claimed [use emphasis] by the Chinese?
China claims a vast swathe of maritime territory off its southern coast – within what Beijing calls a “nine dash line” that stretches well into Filipino and Malaysian waters.
If American aerial surveillance activity is taking place in that area, or over Taiwan (also claimed by China as its “renegade province”) then they could now be at vastly increased risk of being shot down. The ultimate concern would be that a manned aircraft is shot down by one side or the other as part of an escalation or miscalculation.
What we know so far about the flying objects:
- On 4 February, the first object, described by US officials as a suspected Chinese “spy” balloon, was shot down off the Carolina coast;
- On 10 February, a second object, described as being “about the size of a small car” was spotted by NORAD near Alaska and downed;
- Just a day later, on 11 February, a third object, again unidentified, was tracked entering US airspace over Alaska before drifting over Canada and was shot down;
- On Sunday, US officials confirmed another unidentified object had been shot down by fighter jets over Lake Huron on the US-Canada border near Michigan;
- A US F-16 jet fired a missile at about 20,000ft at the latest object amid concerns that its altitude and flightpath could endanger civilian planes;
- A senior US official, speaking anonymously, described the latest object as having “an octagonal structure with strings hanging off but no discernible payload”;
- Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said teams were searching for the object shot down over his country.