A Chinese balloon flies above Billings, Montana on Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo by Chase Doak, Special to States Newsroom).
WASHINGTON — In his first address since the U.S. military shot down three unidentified flying objects last weekend, just days after taking down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, President Joe Biden on Thursday defended the actions and said the skies above the U.S. will now be more closely scrutinized.
Biden, who was under increasing pressure from lawmakers to address the unprecedented situation, also said nothing so far suggests the mystery objects were related to Chinese surveillance or spying by any other nation.
“The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions, studying weather, or conducting other scientific research,” Biden said.
Biden said during his brief remarks that he has “no apologies” for ordering American forces to shoot down the sizable Chinese balloon suspected of surveillance capabilities and said that he expects to speak with China’s President Xi Jinping “to get to the bottom of this.”
China denies the balloon was used for espionage, saying it was collecting weather data.
The U.S. maintains that China operates a vast surveillance balloon program over the U.S. and nearly 40 other countries.
Biden said there is no evidence of increasing numbers of unidentified objects in the skies. “We’re now just seeing more of them, partially because the steps we’ve taken to increase our radars, to narrow our radars, and we have to keep adapting our approach to dealing with these challenges,” Biden said.
“… But make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down,” he said.
Debris in deep waters
As of Tuesday, White House officials said that none of the debris had yet been found in the difficult terrain with temperatures well below zero, and in waters of up to a couple hundred feet.
Some lawmakers have been urging Biden for days to address the nation about why he ordered the objects to be shot down, what the objects were, and what the protocol will be going forward.
“Americans are worried, they’re concerned, and they’re interested, and they have a right to know why President Biden directed the actions that he did over the last week,” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton said after senators received a classified briefing Tuesday.
The White House and Pentagon offered little detail about the objects that were each taken down with a nearly 200-pound air-to-air missile.
The first AIM-9X Sidewinder missile fired from two F-16 jets over Lake Huron missed and landed in the water, Pentagon officials said Tuesday. The second missile hit the object, and debris crashed into the Canadian side of the lake, according to the administration.
The administration promised Tuesday to update the public by week’s end about a new interagency policy plan for deciding when to take action against unidentified aerial objects.
Senators who were privately briefed said they were told the objects were “very, very small,” according to Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
‘Size of an A.T.V. or four-wheeler’
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson, of North Carolina, wrote in a Substack post Wednesday that the three objects shot down over the weekend were “fundamentally different” than the high-altitude suspected Chinese spy balloon because they were flying lower and moving with the wind, according to what he learned in a congressional briefing from Gen. Glen VanHerck, Commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.
One was the size and shape consistent with a balloon, and the other two were roughly “the size of an A.T.V. or four-wheeler,” he wrote. While the purposes of the objects were unclear, members were told they weren’t outfitted with a required transponder that communicates location data to the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.
“This episode has sparked a new effort to develop a set of strategies for detecting and eliminating UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) — ideally without having to use extremely expensive missiles — and a better notification system for our governors and allies,” Jackson wrote.
GOP governors’ statement
Seventeen Republican governors on Thursday released a joint statement criticizing the Biden administration for what they described as a lack of communication about the objects hovering over their states, according to a press release from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
In addition to Noem, those governors included Kim Reynolds, of Iowa; Sarah Sanders, of Arkansas; Ron DeSantis, of Florida; Brian Kemp, of Georgia; Brad Little, of Idaho; Eric Holcomb, of Indiana; Tate Reeves, of Mississippi; Mike Parson, of Missouri; Jim Pillen, of Nebraska; Doug Burgum, of North Dakota; Kevin Stitt, of Oklahoma; Henry McMaster, of South Carolina; Bill Lee, of Tennessee; Greg Abbott, of Texas; Glenn Youngkin, of Virginia; and Mark Gordon, of Wyoming.
“The violation of American airspace by multiple foreign objects is unprecedented and threatens our national sovereignty along with the security of our states,” wrote Noem and fellow governors. “As governors, we have sworn an oath to defend against ‘all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ Yet, President Biden has chosen not to fully communicate with the public about this critical issue impacting public safety.”
Noem is now working with state lawmakers on legislation to address the safety of South Dakota’s airways, according to her release.
Prior to the three smaller unidentified objects being shot down over the weekend, several U.S. senators, including Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Montana’s Jon Tester, grilled Pentagon officials last week on why the Chinese balloon was able to traverse Alaska and the lower 48 states before being shot down 6 miles off the coast of South Carolina.
New rules for unmanned airborne objects
Biden said Thursday that his administration will soon implement classified protocols to deal with unmanned airborne objects that enter U.S. airspace.
“I’ll be sharing with Congress these classified policy parameters when they’re completed, and they’ll remain classified, so we don’t give our roadmap to our enemies to try to evade our defenses,” he said.
Biden said other changes will include:
- Establishing “a better inventory” of unmanned aerial objects above the U.S. and making sure the inventory is “accessible and up to date.”
- Implementing “further measures” to detect the unmanned flying objects. (NORAD adjusted its radar sensitivity following the detection of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon.)
- Updating the rules and regulations for those who launch and maintain unmanned aerial objects above the U.S. for commercial, recreational or scientific purposes.
- Directing Secretary of State Antony Blinken to begin working with foreign counterparts to establish global norms “in this largely unregulated space.”
Bipartisan condemnation of China
The Senate, by unanimous consent, approved a resolution Wednesday condemning China for sending a suspected surveillance balloon over the U.S. just weeks ago.
“This resolution condemning China is precisely the kind of bipartisanship Americans expect at a time like this. Instead of each party attacking each other, we are united in this resolution, in condemning China, exactly as we should be,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in his floor remarks Thursday morning.
The Senate resolution came nearly one week after the U.S. House, in a 419-0 vote, unanimously approved a resolution condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s use of the surveillance balloon as a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty.”
Biden delivered the State of the Union address just three days after a U.S. fighter jet downed the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon upon his order.
While Biden remarked in his Feb. 7 speech that he remains “committed” to working with China when it benefits U.S. interests, he also said “But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
Officials estimate the balloon was 200 feet tall and was carrying a “jetliner-sized” payload, or equipment.
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