Skies over North America go quiet after 3 days of shootdowns, Austin says

The spate of shootdowns followed the Feb. 4 downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast after it traversed North America for a week. The Biden administration’s decision to wait before shooting down that balloon touched off days of intense criticism from Republicans and Democrats, who claimed the delay left America vulnerable to China’s intelligence collection apparatus. Lawmakers have since called for more information from the White House after the weekend shootdowns.

On Tuesday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the U.S. does not believe the three unidentified objects shot down last weekend were from China or posed a national security threat.

“We don’t see anything that points right now to being part of [China’s] spy balloon program,” Kirby told reporters. It is also unlikely the objects were used in “intelligence collection against the United States of any kind — that’s the indication now,” he said.

The three objects, which were much smaller than the 200-foot-tall Chinese balloon, were likely “tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” Kirby added.

It’s not yet clear what this past weekend’s objects were, and the administration has offered scant details. There are also questions over the potential for the debris to be recovered. While the Chinese balloon landed in less than 50 feet of water close to the coast, the Alaska and Yukon objects landed in harsh Arctic terrain that is difficult and dangerous to access, and their small size may limit how much material actually remains. The situation is similar for the object that was downed over Lake Huron.

A statement from the U.S. Northern Command said recovery operations near South Carolina continue, and “crews have been able to recover significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure.”

Senators received another classified briefing from the administration on the incursions on Tuesday, but there has been little information offered publicly from that briefing.