'UFOs' may be commercial craft and are probably not Chinese spy balloons, White House says

Beijing has accused Washington of sending its own 'high-altitude balloons' over China

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Preliminary evidence suggests that the three unidentified objects the US shot down over North America in recent days were not linked to any Chinese espionage activities and may have been commercial in nature, the White House said on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden ordered the three vessels to be shot down after they were spotted in US and Canadian airspace late last week at altitudes deemed dangerous to aviation. The mysterious objects appeared days after the US shot down what it said was a Chinese spy balloon.

US authorities “haven't seen any indication or anything that points specifically to the idea that these three objects were part of [China's] spy balloon programme or that they were definitely involved in external intelligence”, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

They “could be balloons that were simply tied to commercial or research entities and therefore benign”, he added.

Mr Kirby's suggestion that the objects could be “balloons” is different from what US officials have previously said. One object was described as about the size of a small car and the others as “octagonal” or “cylindrical”.

Beijing denies the balloon that was shot down over South Carolina on February 4 was being used for surveillance and instead said it was a weather research vessel.

Chinese officials on Monday went on to accuse the US of sending its own “high-altitude balloons” over China. Washington denied those claims.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a planned trip to Beijing, which was supposed to have signalled a willingness to engage in rapprochement.

Following the South Carolina shoot-down, the US military adjusted radar settings to detect smaller objects and promptly discovered the other three unidentified craft — one over Alaska, another over Canada and the third over Lake Huron off Michigan.

The origin of the objects has set off a flurry of speculation, with some observers questioning whether they could be extraterrestrial in nature.

The items did not have any propulsion systems, were not being manoeuvred and were not alien in origin, Mr Kirby told White House reporters on Monday.

“I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens with respect to these craft. Period,” Mr Kirby said.

The next question will be how to calibrate the US military's radar shield.

If the three destroyed objects turn out to have been private or otherwise non-hostile aircraft, then the Pentagon will have to decide whether it should be responding so aggressively to every sighting.

An inter-agency security review is under way, Mr Kirby said, and in the meantime, there is no reason to expect a similar series of actions.

Meanwhile, officials provided senators with a classified briefing on Tuesday to lay out their latest findings.

Members of both parties expressed frustration over the dearth of concrete information and called on the White House to provide more details.

“The American people need to know more so they’ll have more confidence in our national security,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “Our adversaries often know what we know.”

US Navy recovers Chinese balloon — in pictures

Updated: February 14, 2023, 7:14 PM