After days of hype, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday that the three unidentified objects shot down by the US military could have been “totally benign” balloons.
“One thing we have to consider, and we believe the intelligence community is considering as an explanation, is that these could be balloons tied to commercial or research entities and therefore totally benign,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Kirby said that “a range of entities — including countries, companies, research and academic organizations — operate objects at these altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious at all, including scientific research.”
The fact that harmless weather balloons and similar devices operate over the US is common knowledge, yet the US still decided to engage these objects with fighter jets. On Friday, an object was shot down over waters near Alaska, one was shot down the following day over Canada, and on Sunday, one was shot down over Lake Huron, Michigan.
Kirby said that the assessment wasn’t final since no debris has been recovered from any of the objects. “I want to caveat that we haven’t found the debris. We’re still doing the best we can with the observations that were made by the pilots, with the flight profile data that we’ve tried to collect,” he said.
Highlighting the danger of these operations, reports said the F-16 that shot down the object over Lake Huron missed with the first AIM-9X Sidewinder missile it fired and had to use a second one, which downed the object.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley Acknowledged the first Sidewinder missile that was fired on Sunday missed and insisted it “landed harmlessly” in the water. Each Sidewinder missile costs over $450,000.
The downing of the three objects came after a US F-22 took down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina. President Biden came under pressure from some Republicans who wanted him to down the balloon while it was still flying over the United States despite the risk of debris hurting people on the ground.
According to the commander of Northern Command and NORAD, which is responsible for protecting the US and Canada’s airspace, after the Chinese balloon incident, the military adjusted its radars. After the adjustment, smaller, slower objects that were previously filtered out as clutter could be spotted, and they were shot down.
For their part, China maintains the balloon entered the US by accident and was a weather balloon, while the US claims it was a spy device. China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that the US had sent 10 balloons into Chinese airspace since last year.