Biden Says 'Objects' Shot Down by US Fighter Jets Were Likely Balloons

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President Joe Biden speaks about the Chinese surveillance balloon.
President Joe Biden speaks about the Chinese surveillance balloon and other unidentified objects shot down by the U.S. military, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden said Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community believes three aerial objects shot down by military fighter jets last week were likely balloons.

At least one of the objects may be tied to an Illinois-based balloon hobbyist club, according to a separate report Thursday, but the U.S. military, federal authorities and Canada are still trying to recover debris from the three objects shot down near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska; the Canadian Yukon; and Lake Huron.

A massive Chinese spy balloon traversed the U.S. earlier this month and was shot down at Biden's order off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. After the incursion and widespread criticism of the administration, the Pentagon widened the aperture of its radar systems to pick up smaller objects in U.S. airspace and began shooting down those deemed a potential risk.

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"The intelligence community's current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions, studying weather or conducting other scientific research," Biden said in a public address.

The president said he directed the administration to come up with "sharper" rules to deal with unidentified aerial objects in the future. The objects were intercepted by U.S. fighter jets and shot with Sidewinder missiles, with one of the missiles missing the target over Lake Huron.

"I'll be sharing with Congress these classified policy parameters when they're completed, and they'll remain classified, so we don't give our road map to our enemies to try to evade our defenses," Biden said. "In addition, I've directed my national security adviser to lead a government-wide effort to make sure we are positioned to deal safely and effectively with the objects in our airspace."

That will include a better and more accessible inventory of objects that are spotted in the sky, and updated rules on launching unmanned objects into the skies, Biden said.

The briefing on Thursday was the closest Biden and his administration have come to saying that the objects shot down were likely benign as lawmakers and the public have clamored for more information.

The administration briefed members of Congress behind closed doors Tuesday on the flap over the past week, leaving both Republicans and Democrats unsatisfied by what they saw as a lack of transparency on the objects shot down over the U.S. and Canada.

"I think they certainly have information that is not available to us yet," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said after leaving a classified briefing Tuesday.

Defense officials said repeatedly in recent days that little to nothing was known about the objects, refusing to call them balloons, discuss the shape or even speculate on how they were staying aloft.

Pilots who intercepted the objects were traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, and the relatively small objects, traveling much more slowly at 20,000 to 40,000 feet in altitude, were very difficult to assess visually, according to Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command, who oversaw the operations.

It is unclear what remains of the objects after the missile strikes, but Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said this week that the military, along with federal and Canadian authorities were working in difficult conditions -- minus-40 degree temperatures, mountains and hundreds of feet of lake depth -- to recover debris.

The object shot down in the Yukon over the Rocky Mountains might be a "pico balloon" that belonged to members of a hobbyist club in Illinois, according to Aviation Week.

The balloons are cheap to buy, can drift high for long periods of time, and are exempt from most Federal Aviation Administration airspace restrictions. The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade last tracked one of its silver-coated balloons over Alaska earlier this month.

A day later, when the balloon would likely have been over the Yukon, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered one of the objects spotted on air defense radar shot down. The operation was carried out by U.S. fighter jets under the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.

"The descriptions of all three unidentified objects shot down Feb. 10-12 match the shapes, altitudes and payloads of the small pico balloons," according to Aviation Week.

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

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