“We call it an object because it’s the best description we have at the moment.” Thus, without half measures, but with a caution that currently limits the information available, a few hours ago the White House described the latest challenge that has caused its defense officials a headache. On Thursday its radar system detected an unidentified “object” flying off the north coast of Alaska, at about 40,000 feet. Concluding that it posed a threat to civilian air traffic, President Joe Biden decided to shoot it down.
The incident is relevant in itself, but if it is grabbing headlines in half the world press it is probably because of the context, still marked by the controversy over the supposed Chinese spy balloon that the US shot down just a few days ago.
What happened? That the US has shot down a device that was flying over its territory. The second in a matter of a week. The “object,” as White House spokesman John Kirby has defined it, was identified Thursday by the North American Aerospace Defense Command with the help of ground-based radar. Shortly after he sent planes to identify it. Deeming it posed “a reasonable threat” to civilian flights, Biden ordered it shot down. The operation was carried out on Friday, around 7:45 p.m. in mainland Spain.
This afternoon, an object that violated American airspace was brought down. I was briefed on the matter and supported the decision to take action. Our military and intelligence services will always work together, including through @NORADCommandto keep people safe.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) February 10, 2023
What do we know about the “object”? Not much, really. During their examination authorities found that it was unmanned and is known to be smaller than the alleged Chinese spy balloon that was detected – and later shot down – last week in the US. The general and Pentagon Press Secretary, Patrick Ryder, explained that the device was the size of “a small car” and was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet, which is equivalent to about 12,200 meters.
So far the three brushstrokes advanced by the authorities. What is its origin and purpose, who is its owner and where and when it took off are issues that are currently unknown. Or they have not transcended. “We have no further details on the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose, or origin,” the Defense Department said yesterday. Whether it had surveillance equipment and maneuverability, like the Chinese balloon, is unknown.
And what happened to his remains? The mysterious “object” was shot down by an Air Force F-22 fighter jet off the north coast of Alaska. “Out of precaution and on the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Joe Biden ordered the military to shoot it down. They did it upon entering our territorial waters,” explained Kirby, who clarified that the area where the maneuver was carried out is frozen. The remains would have fallen on the sea ice, which has allowed the US Northern Command to begin a deployment to recover them.
Why does context matter? Because this is the second object that the US has shot down in a matter of a week. A few days ago the Department of Defense fighters struck down another device, although on that occasion the authorities did claim to know what it was about: a supposed Chinese spy balloon.
The reading is quite different in Beijing, which maintains that it was a meteorological and civil device for scientific purposes. Its size was much larger than the new “object”: according to CNBC, it was equivalent to about three school buses. It was also maneuverable. The US also ensures that it incorporated the necessary technology to intercept communications and collect data.
And beyond? Shortly after detecting that first balloon, the Pentagon also reported a second similar device that was flying over Latin America. The incident, of course, had implications that went beyond the simple anecdote: the US decided to suspend almost “in extremis” what was going to be the first visit by a senior US official to Beijing since 2018 and the Asian giant has questioned the response of Washington, which he has dismissed as “exaggerated”. “This matter should be dealt with calmly without the use of force,” he claims.
Top image: Robert Sullivan (Flickr)
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