WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday defended its decision to shoot down three low-flying, aerial objects over U.S. and Canadian airspace in the past three days, but said it had not determined yet exactly what the objects were, who owned them or what they were doing.
Each of the three crafts was the size of a small car, and was detected floating on prevailing winds.
“We have not yet been able to definitively assess what these most recent objects are,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said at a White House briefing.
“And while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out,” he added.
The first of the three crafts was destroyed on Friday in U.S. airspace over Alaskan waters. It was cylindrical, the size of a small car and had been floating at around 40,000 feet in altitude, Kirby said, posing a threat to civilian aircraft.
On Saturday, the U.S. and Canada coordinated the use of American military jets to shoot down a second object, this time overland in the remote Canadian Yukon.
That craft was similar in size, shape and flight altitude to the one that was destroyed Friday, Kirby said.
The third object was also the size of a car, but it was octagonal and was flying lower, at approximately 20,000 feet. That object was shot down Sunday over Lake Huron, on the U.S.-Canadian border.
Kirby said the sharp increase in the number of objects shot down in recent days was partly a result of heightened radar sensitivity, implemented in the wake of the discovery of a massive Chinese spy balloon in late January.
That balloon was 200 feet high and carried a payload of surveillance equipment. Defense officials opted to let it float over the continental U.S. for a week, before shooting it down Feb, 4 above the waters off South Carolina.
“One of the reasons we’re seeing more, is because we’re looking for more,” Kirby said Monday, taking pains not to call the three latest floating objects “balloons.”
“We need to separate [the three recent objects] from the Chinese spy balloon,” he said. In the spy balloon situation, “we knew what it was, we knew where it was going, we knew what it was doing.” This time around, there are more questions, he said.
The effort to salvage debris from these latest incidents is being hindered so far, said Kirby, by terrain and freezing temperatures on both land and in the deep waters of Lake Huron and the Arctic Ocean.
“We know that [Chinese] surveillance balloons have crossed over dozens of countries on multiple continents around the world, including some of our closest allies and partners,” said Kirby.
“We also know 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,” he said.