The three still-unidentified aerial objects shot down by the US in the past week likely had merely a “benign purpose”, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday, drawing a distinction between them and the massive Chinese balloon that earlier traversed the US with a suspected goal of surveillance.
“The intelligence community is considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.
Officials also disclosed that a missile fired at one of the three objects, over Lake Huron on Sunday, missed its intended target and landed in the water before a second one successfully hit.
The new details came as the Biden administration’s actions over the past two weeks faced fresh scrutiny in Congress.
First, US fighter jets did not shoot down what officials described as a Chinese spy balloon until after it had crossed much of the United States, citing safety concerns. Then the military deployed F-22 fighters with heat-seeking missiles to quickly shoot down what likely were harmless objects.
Taken together, the actions raised political as well as security questions, about whether the Biden administration overreacted after facing Republican criticism for reacting too slowly to the big balloon.
Even as more information about the three objects emerges, questions remain about what they were, who sent them and how the US might respond to unidentified airborne objects in the future.
Still unaddressed are questions about the original balloon, including what spying capabilities it had and whether it was transmitting signals as it flew over sensitive military sites in the United States.
Little is known about the three objects shot down over three successive days, from Friday to Sunday, in part because it has been challenging to recover debris from remote locations in the Canadian Yukon, off northern Alaska and near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Lake Huron.
So far, officials have no indication they were part of a bigger surveillance operation along with the balloon that was shot down off the South Carolina coast on February 4.
“We don’t see anything that points right now to being part of the PRC spy balloon program,” Mr Kirby told reporters, referring to the People’s Republic of China. It’s also not likely the objects were “intelligence collection against the United States of any kind — that’s the indication now”.
No country or private company has come forward to claim any of the objects, Mr Kirby said. They do not appear to have been operated by the US government.
Mr Kirby had hinted on Monday that the three objects were different in substantive ways from the balloon, including in their size. And his comments on Tuesday marked a clear effort by the White House to draw a line between the balloon, which officials believe was part of a Chinese military programme that has operated over five continents, and objects that the administration thinks could simply be part of some research or commercial effort.
Still, Senator Thom Tillis said the successful recent interceptions were likely to have a “calming influence” and make future shootdowns less likely.
Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters after the briefing that he did not think the objects posed a threat.
“They’re trying to figure out — you know there’s a bunch of junk up there. So you got to figure out what’s the threat, what’s not. You see something, you shouldn’t always have to shoot it down,” Mr Graham said.
Mr Biden has ordered National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to form an interagency team to study the detection, analysis and “disposition of unidentified aerial objects” that could pose either safety or security risks.
The recent objects have also drawn the attention of world leaders including in Canada, where one was shot down on Saturday, and in the United Kingdom, where the prime minister has ordered a security review.
Japan’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that at least three flying objects spotted in Japanese airspace since 2019 are strongly believed to have been Chinese spy balloons.
Meanwhile, US officials confirmed that a first missile aimed at the object over Lake Huron landed instead in the water, but that a second one hit the target.
“We’re very, very careful to make sure that those shots are in fact safe,” Gen Milley said. “And that’s the guidance from the president. Shoot it down, but make sure we minimise collateral damage and we preserve the safety of the American people.”
The object taken down on Sunday was the third in as many days to be shot from the skies.
The White House has said the objects differed in size and manoeuvrability from the Chinese surveillance balloon that US fighter jets shot down earlier this month, but that their altitude was low enough to pose a risk to civilian air traffic.
Weather challenges and the remote locations of where the three objects were shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron have impeded recovery efforts so far.
Gen Milley was in Brussels with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with members of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group on additional weapons and defence needs for Kyiv in advance of Russia’s anticipated spring offensive.