US Military: Origin of 3 Downed Objects Unknown
The U.S. said Monday it does not know the origin of the three high-altitude objects it shot down over the last few days as they drifted in the winds over North America.
The government said it does not believe the objects were surveillance aircraft, though it is leaving open the possibility that they may be.
"They didn't have propulsion," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at the White House. "They were not being maneuvered. They didn't have surveillance [capability], but we couldn't rule it out."
"We're sort of in uncharted territory here," Kirby said.
He said parts of all three objects fell "in remote, difficult places to reach" — ice off the coast of the far northwestern U.S. state of Alaska, the Yukon territory of northwestern Canada and the depths of Lake Huron on the U.S.-Canada border.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said U.S. personnel have not yet recovered any debris from the three objects.
Austin told reporters Monday in Brussels, where he is scheduled to meet with NATO defense ministers this week, that weather is hampering recovery efforts in Alaska while the remote terrain in Canada is affecting the search there.
He said the priority for the Pentagon is "debris recovery so that we can get a better sense of what these objects are."
Kirby declined to refer to any of the three airborne objects as balloons.
"We don't know who owns them," he said, in contrast to the Chinese spy balloon the U.S. shot down February 4 over the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of the southern state of South Carolina after it traversed the U.S. mainland for eight days. China is continuing to claim the balloon was an errant weather-monitoring aircraft that drifted off course. But U.S. officials say the parts they have recovered from the ocean floor show the balloon was on a surveillance mission.
Kirby said President Joe Biden "has made this a very top priority," to determine the ownership and origin of the three objects downed by U.S. fighter pilots, either on his orders, or in the case of the one that landed in the Yukon, in consultation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The spokesperson said the three objects were shot down because they posed a "very real" threat to civilian aviation, with the objects near Alaska and over the Yukon territory drifting about 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) above the Earth and the one over Lake Huron at half that height.
After the Chinese balloon was discovered, Kirby said U.S. radar has been recalibrated to look for more objects.
"One of the reasons we're seeing more is we're looking for more," he said.
Earlier, Kirby vehemently rejected Beijing's accusation Monday that the U.S. had flown more than 10 high-altitude balloons over China — as the two superpowers continued to spar over the American shootdown of the Chinese balloon off the eastern U.S. coastline.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, at a daily briefing, contended, "It is also common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries. Since last year, U.S. high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China's airspace more than 10 times without the approval of Chinese authorities."
He said the U.S. should "first reflect on itself and change course rather than smear and instigate a confrontation."
Kirby told MSNBC, "Not true. Not doing it. Just absolutely not true. We're not flying balloons over China."
Both countries deploy spy satellites, but after Wang accused the U.S. of flying balloons over China, he offered no details about how they had been dealt with or whether they had alleged links to the U.S. government.
The U.S. said Monday it has also spotted Chinese balloons flying through the Middle East. But Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich, commander of the U.S. Air Forces Central, said, "They've not been a threat. They've flown through a few times since I've been in command but nothing that I would be concerned about in any way."
China has accused the U.S. of overreacting by shooting down the balloon that traversed the U.S. mainland before crossing over open waters.
National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said, "It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, connected to the People's Liberation Army, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the United States and over 40 countries across five continents."
"This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control," she said. "It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the United States was a weather balloon, and to this day, has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace and the airspace of others."
Following the balloon incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a visit to Beijing that potentially could have eased relations between the two countries and disputes over Taiwan, trade, human rights and threatening Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea.
VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin and Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.