U.S. shoots down object posing ‘reasonable threat’ to aviation off Alaska’s Arctic coast, White House says

A U.S. military fighter jet shot down an object flying off the Arctic coast of Alaska on Friday on orders from President Joe Biden, White House officials said.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the object was downed because it was flying at about 40,000 feet and posed a “reasonable threat” to the safety of civilian flights, not because of any knowledge that it was engaged in surveillance. Asked about the object’s downing, Biden on Friday said only that “It was a success.”

Commercial airliners and private jets can fly as high as 45,000 feet.

Ahead of the shoot-down, which occurred around sunrise at 9:45 a.m. Alaska time, the Federal Aviation Administration restricted flights over an area within U.S. airspace off Alaska’s Bullen Point, the site of a disused U.S. Air Force radar station on the Beaufort Sea about 130 miles from the Canadian border and 30 miles east of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

Map: A U.S. military fighter jet on Friday shot down a high-flying object off Bullen Point on the Arctic coast of Alaska on orders from President Joe Biden, White House officials said.

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The object, which officials say they have not conclusively identified, was roughly the size of a car, and much smaller than the Chinese airship shot down Saturday, said Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman. U.S. military officials offered few details, however. They do not yet know the object’s origin, its capabilities or what the craft was doing over U.S. airspace, Ryder said, noting that it was first detected by radar on Thursday.

“We’re still trying to learn more,” Kirby said. “… I want to stress again we don’t know what entity owns this object. There’s no indication it’s from a nation or an institution or an individual.”


Biden was notified about the object on Thursday night, after fighter aircraft were dispatched to observe it more closely, Kirby said. Its speed and small size, coupled with the darkness, left military commanders with few good options upon the initial intercept, officials said.

Alaska-based fighter aircraft were dispatched again on Friday and determined the craft did not have a pilot on board, Kirby said.

“They worked really hard to try to get as much information as they could about this object,” Kirby said. “It was difficult for the pilots to glean a whole lot of information.”

The shoot-down on Friday was carried out by a pair of F-22 Raptors launched from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, with one of the advanced jets launching a single AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, Ryder said.

The twin downings in such close succession are extraordinary, and reflect heightened concerns over China’s surveillance program and public pressure on Biden to take a tough stand against it. Still, there were few answers about the unknown object downed Friday and the White House drew distinctions between the two episodes. Officials couldn’t say if the latest object contained any surveillance equipment, where it came from or what purpose it had.

The Pentagon on Friday declined to provide a more precise description of the object, only saying that U.S. pilots who flew near to observe it determined it didn’t appear to be manned. Officials said the object was far smaller than the previous balloon, did not appear to be maneuverable and was traveling at a much lower altitude.

Kirby maintained that Biden, based on the advice of the Pentagon, believed it posed enough of a concern to shoot it out of the sky — primarily because of the potential risk to civilian aircraft, which can fly up to 45,000 feet.

“We’re going to remain vigilant about our airspace,” Kirby said. “The president takes his obligations to protect our national security interests as paramount.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet Friday that he had been briefed and supported the decision. “Our military and intelligence services will always work together,” he said.

The object fell onto “frozen waters” and officials expected they could recover debris faster than from last week’s massive balloon. Ryder said the object was traveling northeast when it was shot down. He said several U.S. military helicopters have gone out to begin the recovery effort.

Later Friday, the Pentagon said: “Recovery is happening in a mix of ice and snow. Units located in Alaska under the direction of U.S. Northern Command, along with the Alaska National Guard, are involved in the response.”

Daytime temperatures Friday in the area were about minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit.

The president was briefed on the presence of the object Thursday evening after it was detected. NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defense Command — sent F-35 jets to observe it, a U.S. official said, adding that the military queried U.S. government agencies to make sure it did not belong to any of them, and had confidence it was not a U.S. government or military asset. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive national security matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

[Murkowski and other senators press Defense Department on military response to Chinese spy balloon in Alaska]

Because it was much smaller than the suspected Chinese spy balloon, there were fewer safety concerns about downing it over land, so the decision was made to shoot it down when it was possible. That happened over water.

The mystery around what exactly the flying object was lingered late into Friday night. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement saying it was “not a National Weather Service balloon.”

“They do not hover,” said NOAA spokesperson Scott Smullen.


ConocoPhillips earlier Friday had to divert a plane of workers that was halfway to the Alpine field back to Anchorage, said Rebecca Boys, a spokeswoman with the company. It was a Bombardier Q400 aircraft that seats about 66, she said.

Oilfield operations were not impacted and flights have resumed, she said. The flight diversion delayed the change-out of some work crews, she said.

The development came almost a week after the U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian craft and threatened repercussions.

Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.

The balloon was part of a large surveillance program that China has been conducting for “several years,” the Pentagon has said. The U.S. has said Chinese balloons have flown over dozens of countries across five continents in recent years, and it learned more about the balloon program after closely monitoring the one shot down near South Carolina.

China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the U.S. for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”

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This story was compiled from the Associated Press and The Washington Post with additional contributions from ADN reporters Alex Demarban and Riley Rogerson.