Midwestern, Western states in spotlight after mystery flying objects shot down by military

By: and - February 13, 2023 6:59 pm

A Chinese balloon flies above Billings, Mont. on Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo by Chase Doak, Special to States Newsroom).

WASHINGTON — Military posts in Midwestern and Western states played key roles in the unprecedented downings of multiple unmanned aerial objects over the North American continent this weekend.

Members of Congress and governors from the states involved and from both parties have shared information about the downings on Twitter and in statements, in some cases soon after the incidents occurred. But they say they continue to have many questions after the flurry of U.S. and Canadian military activity over the weekend.

Over three days, three types of airborne crafts that the Pentagon has not specifically described were shot down: one over Alaska on Friday, a second over northern Canada with an assist from the U.S. on Saturday, and the third over Lake Huron, Michigan, on Sunday. The Pentagon has not attributed their ownership to any country or company.

That followed the Feb. 4 Air Force downing of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast after it had drifted east from where it was spotted in Montana.

In the Sunday incident, two U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets took off from Madison, Wisconsin, piloted by Air National Guard personnel based in Minnesota, to complete the mission.

“I’m proud of the airmen in the @148FW, based out of Duluth, who earlier today took off from Madison, WI to shoot down a flying object over Lake Huron as part of a federal mission,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz posted to Twitter Sunday, referring to the 148th Air National Guard unit in Duluth. “The Bulldogs executed their mission flawlessly, protected the homeland, and got the birds home safe.”

A refueling aircraft from the Air National Guard based in Pittsburgh and airborne warning support from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma also assisted in monitoring the object.

Air National Guard units have both state and federal missions, which is part of what has put governors in the unusual position of being involved in a national security situation. Governors in a handful of states have had to communicate what is happening in their airspace, while leaving most decision-making to federal authorities.

In a followup tweet, Walz, a Democrat, downplayed his role, saying it was a federal mission and federal authorities would share more information when it was available.

In a Friday statement, Alaska’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said his state was “on the front lines” because of its proximity to Russia, North Korea and China.

He also questioned the Biden administration’s decision not to disrupt the Chinese surveillance balloon until it reached the Atlantic Ocean and called for a discussion about how to make Alaska’s military readiness “more robust.”

Lake Huron downing

The Biden administration did release more information Monday about how it tracked and brought down an object in Lake Huron on Sunday.

The Minnesota crews used an air-to-air missile to down the object over Lake Huron at 2:42 p.m. Eastern.

The low-altitude craft, which was traveling at about 20,000 feet, crashed into the Canadian side of the lake, where the U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian counterparts are now making efforts to recover it in “what is probably very deep water,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said during the White House press briefing Monday.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or  NORAD, had detected an object on radar in Canadian airspace, about 70 miles north of the U.S. border, around 4:45 p.m. Eastern time Saturday.

Fighter jets from Portland, Oregon, and a refueling tanker aircraft from Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state were ordered to take off and investigate the object. But they were unsuccessful as it crossed into sovereign U.S. airspace around 6 p.m., just before dark, according to the Pentagon.

Overnight radar again detected an object tracking over Montana and traveling east on Sunday. Officials then monitored an object on radar over Wisconsin and Lake Michigan.

“It’s likely, but we have not confirmed, that the track that we saw (over) Wisconsin was likely the same track in Montana,” said NORAD Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck at a late Sunday news briefing.

The general said NORAD was able to monitor the radar track across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and ultimately shoot down the object over Lake Huron using an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.

“I’ve been notified by the Department of Defense that the flying ‘object’ over the Great Lakes has been shot down,” Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin said in a statement Sunday.

“I appreciate the decisive action taken by the President. Wisconsinites’ safety and our national security remain paramount, and I am working hard to get Americans the answers they need and deserve on these incursions.”

Information sharing

Both the full U.S. House and Senate were given classified briefings last week in the days following the Feb. 4 splashdown of a sizable suspected Chinese surveillance balloon 6 miles off the coast of South Carolina.

National defense agencies have also kept “relevant state governors” apprised of operations in their states, Kirby said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

However, lawmakers want to know more. A senior U.S. House aide said elected officials are waiting for more information, including any details on the objects — size, shape, purpose or capabilities.

Unlike the approximately 200-foot maneuverable balloon from China — China says the balloon was for weather research —  that carried a payload the size of a jetliner at 60,000 feet, the Pentagon and White House maintain the objects shot down over the last few days were smaller and unmaneuverable.

Friday, Saturday downings

The two incidents prior to Sunday’s were similar.

On Friday morning, airspace over Alaska closed to air traffic as NORAD tracked an unidentified object at 40,000 feet and eventually shot it down with an air-to-air missile over frozen waters off Alaska’s Northern Slope.

Then, two U.S. F-22 fighters from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson were ordered to monitor another object over Alaska late Friday evening. The object crossed into Canadian airspace Saturday, and the Royal Canadian Air Force monitored as a U.S. F-22 shot the object down over Yukon.

In all three weekend instances, the Pentagon says the objects posed a risk to civilian air traffic as they were at the level of commercial air traffic and at the mercy of the wind.

While they didn’t pose a military threat, officials were concerned about their proximity to sensitive U.S. military sites, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton said Sunday.

Adjustments to NORAD’s radar system since the Chinese balloon traversed the continent in early February has allowed more sensitive detection above North America, according to the Pentagon.

“In light of the People’s Republic of China balloon that we took down last Saturday, we have been more closely scrutinizing our airspace at these altitudes, including enhancing our radar, which may at least partly explain the increase in objects that we’ve detected over the past week. We also know that a range of entities, including countries, companies, research organizations operate objects at these altitudes for purposes that are not nefarious, including legitimate research,” Dalton said.

“That said, because we have not yet been able to definitively assess what these recent objects are, we have acted out of an abundance of caution to protect our security and interests,” she continued.

Members of Congress press for more

That explanation still does not go far enough for some lawmakers.

“We need answers from the Pentagon. We need answers from the President himself. There are times to err on the side of secrecy in national security operations. But when our fighter pilots are shooting down presumably hostile aerial objects all across America, it’s long past time for transparency,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the new House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, said in a statement provided by his office Monday.

“Where are these (unidentified aerial phenomena) coming from? What is their purpose? Are they related to the CCP’s spy balloon or other CCP-directed espionage programs?” the Wisconsin Republican continued, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

Gallagher repeated media reports from an unnamed official that the object that floated over his congressional district was “octagonal.” States Newsroom has not independently verified that claim.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who chairs the Defense spending subcommittee, said he supported the decision to shoot down the object that traveled over his state.

He said he was in continued contact with defense and intelligence officials and would “keep demanding answers for the public.”

“I’m continuing to receive regular updates from the Pentagon and our intelligence community as we closely monitor American airspace,” he said in a Sunday tweet. “I will keep holding them accountable so the public gets the answers they deserve.”

Kirby said the White House is staying in regular contact with state and local officials.

“We will continue to brief members of Congress and relevant state leadership on what we are doing and what we learned,” Kirby said Monday. “The President has made this a very top priority. We have, over the course of just the last few days and certainly over the course of last week, reached out to inform and brief members of Congress and relevant state governors of the operations that we were conducting and other recovery operations that are underway.”

The president has ordered the creation of an interagency team to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks, according to the White House.

“We have been, I think, as transparent as we can be,” Kirby said.

There is “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said with laughter Monday.

Senators are expected to receive a briefing Tuesday morning, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Below is a list of flying objects the U.S. has downed or helped down in the last two weeks:

  • Feb. 3-4: A suspected Chinese surveillance balloon (China claims it was an off-course weather balloon) was spotted in Montana Feb. 3, tracked over Kansas and Nebraska and shot down off the coast of South Carolina Feb. 4.
  • Feb. 10: An unidentified object was shot down off the coast of Alaska.
  • Feb. 11: The U.S. assisted Canada to take down “a high-altitude airborne object over northern Canada.”
  • Feb. 12: An “airborne object” over Lake Huron, Michigan, was shot down. The Minnesota Air National Guard took off from Wisconsin to bring the object down. Pilots from Oregon and Washington (and a tanker from Pittsburgh Air National Guard) also tracked the object. It was also possibly detected over Montana, Wisconsin.

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Ashley Murray
Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include domestic policy and appropriations.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy and helps direct national coverage as deputy Washington bureau chief for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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