A US fighter jet shot down an “unidentified object” over Lake Huron on Sunday on orders from President Joe Biden. It was the fourth such downing in eight days and the latest military strike in an extraordinary chain of events over US airspace that Pentagon officials believe has no peacetime precedent.
Part of the reason for the repeated shootdowns is a “heightened alert” following a spy balloon from China that emerged over US airspace in late January, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and US Northern Command, said.
Since then, fighter jets last week also shot down objects over Canada and Alaska. Pentagon officials said they posed no security threats, but little was known about them.
“We have been more closely scrutinising our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Melissa Dalton said.
US authorities have made clear that they constantly monitor for unknown radar blips, and it is not unusual to shut down airspace as a precaution to evaluate them.
Eight days ago, F-22 jets downed the large white balloon that had wafted over the US for days at an altitude of about 60,000 feet. Officials immediately blamed China and said the balloon was equipped to detect and collect intelligence signals and could manoeuvre itself. White House officials said improved surveillance capabilities helped detect it.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the unmanned balloon was a civilian meteorological airship that had blown off course. Beijing said the US had “overreacted” by shooting it down.
On Friday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command detected and shot down an object near sparsely populated Deadhorse, Alaska.
Later that evening, NORAD detected a second object, flying at a high altitude over Alaska, officials said. It crossed into Canadian airspace on Saturday and was over the Yukon, a remote territory when it was ordered to be shot down by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In both incidents, the objects were flying at roughly 40,000 feet. The object on Sunday was flying at 20,000 feet.
The cases have increased diplomatic tensions between the United States and China, raised questions about the extent of Beijing’s American surveillance, and prompted days of criticism from Republican lawmakers about the administration’s response.