The U.S. and Canada awoke Sunday facing high-stakes questions: How safe are the skies over North America? And just how pervasive is China’s aerial surveillance program on the continent?
Top U.S. lawmakers indicated Sunday that two unidentified flying objects shot down over Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory on Friday and Saturday, respectively, appear to be balloons — though much smaller than the massive Chinese spy craft that traveled over the U.S. two weeks ago before it was shot down off the South Carolina coast. The Biden administration has not yet definitively said the objects are balloons, nor have officials publicly said the craft came from China, though it appears increasingly likely that is the case.
The three incidents have combined to fuel fascination and fear among the American public, with rampant speculation over the weekend that the craft may be part of Chinese spying operations, a Russian psychological warfare campaign or even the first salvo of an extraterrestrial invasion.
By historical standards, the military’s response has been stunning. It is exceedingly rare for U.S. military aircraft to shoot down objects in North American skies, let alone three in just one week.
On top of that, the Pentagon late Saturday evening scrambled fighter jets and the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace after a “radar anomaly” in the skies over Montana, sparking fears of yet another UFO.
Defense officials said that the jets did not find an object correlating with that anomaly, but the incident added yet another layer of drama.
SEE ALSO: House Dem knocks Biden for not being more ‘forthcoming’ on Chinese spy balloons
“What’s gone on in the last, you know, two weeks or so, 10 days, has been nothing short of craziness,” Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, told ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday. “And the military needs to have a plan to not only determine what’s out there, but determine the dangers that go with it.”
Mr. Tester suggested that there may still be an unidentified object over his home state.
“My guess is it’ll get shot down. But the military will make an assessment as to potential collateral damage just like they did on the Chinese balloon,” he said.
The Biden administration has faced withering criticism for its handling of the first Chinese spy balloon, which was spotted over Montana and allowed to travel across the entire country before being shot down on Feb. 4. China maintains the balloon was on a civilian mission to collect weather data, but the U.S. contended its trip across sensitive sites from the Canadian border to the Atlantic coast was a spy mission.
President Biden gave the order to shoot down the balloon once it was over water and did not pose a safety risk to civilians on the ground. Critics say the decision to wait so long showed weakness and sent a signal to Beijing that America will allow foreign craft to travel through its airspace unimpeded.
Now, some lawmakers say, the administration has swung to the opposite extreme.
SEE ALSO: House intel panel chair after 3rd downed object: ‘Trigger happy’ is better than being ‘permissive’
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner said Sunday that the Biden administration appeared eager to take down the two UFOs in North American airspace. The apparent change in tune was a welcome one, the Ohio Republican said, but he questioned why the same quick action was not taken previously.
“I would prefer them to be trigger-happy than to be permissive,” Mr. Turner said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But we’re going to have to see whether or not this is just the administration trying to change headlines.”
Even some Democrats believe the administration has been too guarded with information.
“I have real concerns about why the administration is not being more forthcoming with everything that it knows,” Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut Democrat, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “But part of the problem here is that both the second and the third objects were shot down in very remote areas. So, my guess is that there’s just not a lot of information out there yet to share.”
More questions than answers
The administration acted quickly in casting the first balloon as a Chinese spy craft. Administration officials have subsequently talked in depth about the extent of Chinese aerial surveillance programs around the world, including the fact that such balloons have apparently flown over at least 40 countries and are part of a concerted effort to gain knowledge about U.S. military capabilities.
But the U.S. and Canada were far more tight-lipped after the incidents Friday and Saturday. On Friday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby revealed the first incident, saying that U.S. planes took down a car-sized object over Alaskan coastal waters.
“Out of an abundance of caution, and at the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Biden ordered the military to down the object,” he told reporters at the White House Friday.
Pentagon officials have revealed little detail in the days since, other than saying the craft was unmanned.
Similarly, U.S. fighter jets acting on orders from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shot down a second craft over the Yukon Territory. The order came after a phone call between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Biden.
Later Saturday, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said the UFO was “cylindrical” in shape but said little else about its nature.
By Sunday morning, however, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer offered the first real glimpse behind the curtain of the ongoing U.S. and Canadian investigation. Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” the New York Democrat indicated that the two most recent objects were also spy balloons and he seemed to suggest they also came from China.
“They believe they were, yes, but much smaller than the first one,” he said, adding that the two craft were flying at about 40,000 feet, which posed a danger to commercial air traffic.
The larger Chinese balloon was flying at about 60,000 feet as it traveled across the U.S.
Mr. Schumer also said the ordeal has been embarrassing for Beijing.
“Look, I think the Chinese were humiliated. I think the Chinese were caught lying. And I think it’s a real step back for them, yes,” he said. “I think they’re probably going to have to get rid of it or do something, because they look really bad. And they’re not just doing the United States. This is a crew of balloons, we saw one in South America, they’ve probably been all over the world.”
On Sunday, the U.S. and Canada were gathering evidence across the continent. Separate crews were working off the South Carolina coast, in Alaskan waters and in Canada’s Yukon to recover debris from the three shoot-downs. Canada is taking the lead in the Yukon recovery efforts.
“As Canadian authorities conduct recovery operations to help our countries learn more about the object, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be working closely with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement late Saturday.