F-16 Missile Missed 'Object' Shot Down Over Lake Huron, Joint Chiefs Chairman Says

Sailors recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off Myrtle Beach.
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson)

The first missile shot by a U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet at an unidentified flying object over Lake Huron on Sunday missed the target, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a press briefing Tuesday.

The AIM-9X Sidewinder missile missed and went into the great lake, while the second missile fired by the jet blew up the object, said Milley. The chairman, who said it was the only miss after a spy balloon and three objects were shot down in the past week and a half, dismissed concerns that the errant missile launched over the U.S. caused any danger to the public.

The military, FBI and Canadian authorities are now trying to recover three unknown aerial objects shot down by U.S. jets over Alaska, the Yukon and Lake Huron since Friday. On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden ordered a Chinese surveillance balloon that was 200 feet high with a payload the size of three school buses be taken down off the coast of South Carolina after it traversed the U.S.

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    "We go to great lengths to make sure that the airspace is clear and the backdrop is clear out to the max effective range of the missile and, in this case, the missile landed harmlessly in the water at Lake Huron," Milley said during a press conference in Germany. "We tracked it [the missile] all the way down, and we made sure that the airspace was clear of any commercial, civilian or recreational traffic."

    China's deployment of a massive self-propelled surveillance balloon, which drifted from Montana to South Carolina and came near military nuclear facilities, started an ongoing furor in Washington, D.C., and criticism of the White House's handling of China. Beijing has denied it was spying on the U.S.

    The spectacle forced the Biden administration to take such encroachments more seriously, and the Pentagon recalibrated its radar systems to track smaller, slow-moving objects. Defense officials said that has caused the military to see more objects that may or may not be a threat, and has led to the sudden rash of shootdowns.

    "Because we have not yet been able to definitively assess what these recent objects are, we have acted out of an abundance of caution to protect our security and interests," Melissa Dalton, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, said during a phone briefing to the press Sunday.

    Both defense and White House officials have repeatedly declined to describe or characterize the three most recent objects to be shot down or characterize them as balloons.

    "What I would tell you is what we're seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section. I'm not going to go into detail about shapes or anything like that really because it's really, really difficult for pilots at the altitudes we're operating," Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, said Sunday during the briefing. "These are very, very slow objects in the space, if you will, going at the speed of the wind essentially."

    The fighter pilots who are scrambled to intercept the objects are traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, which makes getting an accurate view of the objects difficult, he said.

    The first uncharacterized object -- about the size of a small car -- was shot down by an F-22 Raptor over the Arctic Ocean in northern Alaska near the Canadian border Friday, and the second object was shot down Saturday over the Yukon in the Canadian Rockies at the order of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

    On Saturday evening, NORTHCOM began tracking another object near the Canadian border, and it reappeared over northern Michigan on Sunday at an altitude of 22,000 feet.

    "We were cleared to engage the target in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan over land and, ultimately, downed the object at this point about 15 nautical miles east of the Upper Peninsula in Lake Huron," VanHerck said. "What we saw was an object that began drifting, potentially, most likely landed in Canadian waters in Lake Huron."

    The military and federal authorities were recovering the Chinese balloon from the ocean floor off South Carolina this week, but the other objects have yet to be recovered due to challenging terrain, weather and depth, Milley said.

    "The one off the coast of Alaska, that's up in some really, really difficult terrain, the Arctic Circle with very, very low temperatures in the minus-40s," Milley said. "The second one is in the Canadian Rockies and Yukon -- very difficult to get that one -- and the third one is in Lake Huron at probably a couple hundred feet depth.

    "So, we'll get them eventually, but it's gonna take some time to recover those," he said.

    -- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

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