Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday that on his order, a U.S. fighter jet shot down an “unidentified object” that was flying high over the Yukon, acting a day after the U.S. took similar action over Alaska’s Arctic coast.
North American Aerospace Defense Command, the combined U.S.-Canada organization that provides shared defense of airspace over the two nations, detected the object flying at a high altitude Friday evening over Alaska, U.S. officials said. It crossed into Canadian airspace on Saturday.
Two F-22 aircraft from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, with the assistance of an Alaska Air National Guard refueling aircraft, monitored the object over Alaska airspace Friday and Saturday as the object crossed into Canadian airspace, according to a statement from Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder.
Trudeau spoke with President Joe Biden, who also ordered the object to be shot down. Both Canadian and U.S. jets operating as part of NORAD were scrambled, and it was a U.S. jet that shot the object down. In a statement, Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said the object was shot down by an Alaska-based F-22 fighter jet.
Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said at a news conference in Ottawa that the object, flying at around 40,000 feet, had been shot down at 11:41 a.m. Alaska time, approximately 100 miles from the Canada-U.S. border in the central Yukon. A recovery operation was underway involving the Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The object over Canada was taken out with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile following coordination that included a discussion between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Anand, Ryder said. He added that the FBI would work closely with Canadian authorities to learn more about the object.
Hours later, in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration said Saturday night it had closed some airspace in Montana to support Defense Department activities. NORAD later said the closure, which lasted a little more than an hour, came after it had detected “a radar anomaly” and sent fighter aircraft to investigate. The aircraft did not identify any object to correlate to the radar hits, NORAD said.
After the airspace closure over Montana, multiple members of Congress, including Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, said they were in touch with defense officials. Daines tweeted that he would “continue to demand answers on these invasions of US airspace.”
F-22 fighter jets have now taken out three objects in the airspace above the U.S. and Canada over seven days, a stunning development that is raising questions on just what, exactly, is hovering overhead and who has sent them.
At least one of the objects downed was believed to be a spy balloon from China, but the other two had not yet been publicly identified. While Trudeau described the object Saturday as “unidentified,” a NORAD spokesman, Maj. Olivier Gallant, said the military had determined what it was but would not reveal details. Anand said it appeared to be “a small cylindrical object, smaller than the one that was downed off the coast of North Carolina.”
Anand refused to speculate whether the object shot down over Canada came from China.
“We are continuing to do the analysis on the object, and we will make sure that analysis is thorough,” she said. “It would not be prudent for me to speculate on the origins of the object at this time.”
Anand said to her knowledge this was the first time NORAD had downed an object in Canadian airspace.
“The importance of this moment should not be underestimated,” she said. “We detected this object together, and we defeated this object together.”
She was asked why a U.S. jet, and not a Canadian plane, shot the object down.
“As opposed to separating it out by country, I think what the important point is, these were NORAD capabilities, this was a NORAD mission and this was NORAD doing what it is supposed to do,” she said.
Anand didn’t use the word “balloon” to describe the object. But later, Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of the defense staff, said the instructions given to the planes was “whoever had the first, best shot to take out the balloon had the go-ahead.”
Trudeau said Canadian forces would recover the wreckage for study. The Yukon is the westernmost Canadian territory and among the least populated parts of Canada.
A day earlier, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said an object roughly the size of a small car was shot out of the skies above northern Alaska. Officials couldn’t say if it contained any surveillance equipment, where it came from or what purpose it had.
Kirby said it was shot down 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.
According to U.S. Northern Command, recovery operations continued Saturday on sea ice near Deadhorse.
In a statement, the Northern Command said there were no new details on what the object was. It said the Alaska Command and the Alaska National Guard, along with the FBI and local law enforcement, were conducting search and recovery.
Military officials said they had no new details to provide about the origin, capabilities or intended purpose of the object shot down over Alaska. Defense officials said its remnants landed in a mix of snow and ice near Prudhoe Bay, home to North America’s largest oil field.
Military personnel in helicopters and an HC-130 search-and-rescue plane immediately began looking for pieces. While the object came down off Alaska’s northern coast, the water was frozen, complicating any effort to recover the craft by boat.
The object was first spotted Thursday at an altitude of about 40,000 feet and traveling northeast across the state, Pentagon officials said. Two F-35s from Eielson Air Force Base in central Alaska were dispatched to assess what the object was, and two F-22s from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage were sent up Friday to shoot it down.
“Arctic weather conditions, including wind chill, snow, and limited daylight, are a factor in this operation, and personnel will adjust recovery operations to maintain safety,” the statement said.
The incursions in the past week have changed how analysts receive and interpret information from radars and sensors, a U.S. official told The Washington Post on Saturday, partly addressing a key question of why so many objects have recently surfaced.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that sensory equipment absorbs a lot of raw data, and filters are used so humans and machines can make sense of what is collected. But that process always runs the risk of leaving out something important, the official said.
“We basically opened the filters,” the official added, much like a buyer unchecking boxes on a car website to broaden the parameters of what can be searched. That change does not yet fully answer what is going on, the official cautioned, and whether stepping back to look at more data is yielding more hits — or if this is part of a more deliberate action by an unknown country or adversary.
Officials have used a particular car — a Volkswagen Beetle — to describe the rough size of the objects shot down Friday in Alaska and Saturday in Canada. But while they are similar in size, “they are slightly different in profile,” the official said.
The pilots over Canada had more time to observe the object compared with Friday’s encounter, leaving pilots to have various interpretations of what they were able to see. The object was shot down in a rugged and remote area, the official said.
“All of the objects are similar in certain ways and then dramatically different in certain ways. What we don’t yet understand is what sorts of technology are in there,” the official said. “Really capable technology can be very small and portable. So the size doesn’t tell us a whole lot.”
Last Saturday, U.S. officials shot down a large white balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
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.”
The Navy continued survey and recovery activities on the ocean floor off South Carolina, and the Coast Guard was providing security. Additional debris was pulled out Friday, and additional operations will continue as weather permits, Northern Command said.
This story was compiled from the Associated Press and The Washington Post with additional information by Anchorage Daily News reporter Iris Samuels. Check back for updates.