The U.S. intelligence community has a “leading explanation” on the unidentified flying objects shot down over North America this past weekend, the White House said Tuesday.
The update came as Canada’s defence minister indicated it will be “difficult” to find at least one of those objects that was shot down over Yukon by a U.S. fighter jet. Similar recovery operations are underway near Alaska and Lake Huron for two other objects shot down there in recent days.
U.S. and Canadian officials have yet to confirm what the objects were, where they came from, or why it was deemed necessary to shoot them down beyond posing a risk to civilian aircraft. But White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre indicated to reporters Tuesday that intelligence agencies were getting closer to answering those questions.
“I’m not going to get into the intelligence community’s process, but what I can say is they are considering — there’s strong consideration that these objects are indeed benign,” she said.
Jean-Pierre did note, however, that no commercial or research entities have claimed ownership of any of the objects. She also denied suggestions that U.S. President Joe Biden acted too rashly in ordering the objects to be shot down, pointing out that he had acted on the Pentagon’s recommendation.
“I don’t think the president should be embarrassed by the fact that he took action to ensure our airspace, civilian airspace, was safe,” she said.
NORAD – the continental air defence network – has been on “heightened alert” after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down off the coast of the Carolinas on Feb. 4, Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, told reporters on Sunday.
That balloon, which China has claimed was a weather aircraft, was shot down two days after American officials first acknowledged it and a week after it first entered U.S. and Canadian airspace.
Late Monday, the U.S. military confirmed it had recovered key sensors and other electronics from the balloon that will be analyzed to determine what, if any, information was collected by the craft.
In the nine days since that takedown, American jets have shot down three “unidentified objects” over Alaska, Yukon and Lake Huron near Ontario and Michigan. The object shot down over Lake Huron likely fell into Canadian waters, American officials have said.
In a technical briefing with reporters on Monday, Canadian Forces Maj.-Gen. Paul Prevost said “these three last objects didn’t look anything like the first object that we dealt with.”
The others were smaller in size but followed “the same pattern,” he added. Sean McGillis, executive director of federal policing strategic management with the RCMP, added that while the search remains underway, conditions are highly challenging.
“We’re working very hard to locate them but there’s no guarantee we will,” he said, adding that he remains “very hopeful.”
Defence Minister Anita Anand told reporters in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday morning that terrain and weather in the northern territory are posing significant challenges to search and recovery efforts there, while similar operations are underway near Alaska and Lake Huron for objects shot down there over recent days.
“The terrain is extremely rugged. It is extremely remote. The temperature is approximately -25 Celsius there, and there is heavy snow,” Anand said of the conditions in Yukon.
She is in Belgium until Wednesday meeting with NATO defence ministers.
“The recovery effort is difficult, but as I said, we have a number of aircraft in the air and people on the ground. We have RCMP, we have FBI assistance, and we have obviously Canadian Armed Forces members that are assisting with this effort.”
In Yukon, the search area is between Dawson City and Mayo, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday, which are roughly 230 kilometres apart by vehicle, according to Google Maps.
He said the object was shot down “over fairly unpopulated and sparsely populated territory,” and that Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP personnel have been deployed to find it. The search efforts include personnel specialized in handling hazardous cargo, he said.
Anand said in a series of tweets on Monday the Royal Canadian Air Force has deployed a CC-130H Hercules search and rescue aircraft, two CC-138 Twin Otter utility transport aircraft, which can also be used in search missions, plus a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter and a CH-149 Cormorant, which is an all-weather search and rescue helicopter.
McGillis described the territory as “very rugged and mountainous terrain.” He said it was not “going to be an easy recovery, and could potentially take us some time to locate the device.”
The Environment Canada forecast for Dawson City, Yukon, on Tuesday showed a high temperature of -17 C with frostbite risk. Temperatures well below freezing were forecasted for the rest of the week.
U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley told reporters during a separate news conference on Tuesday that the objects downed over Alaska and Lake Huron are also in “very difficult terrain.” He also said it took two attempts to take down the object over Lake Huron after the fighter’s first shot missed.
The Alaskan object landed in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures are extremely low, while the object in Lake Huron is at least a few hundred feet deep, Milley added.
“We’ll get them eventually, but it’s going to take some time to recover those,” he said.
Jean-Pierre also pointed to “difficult” weather conditions posing challenges to the recovery operations.
On Monday, Trudeau said there appears to be “some sort of pattern” emerging given that three additional aerial objects have been shot down over American and Canadian airspace since initial reports of a suspected Chinese spy balloon surfaced nearly two weeks ago.
Anand was “reluctant” to make a similar statement when asked on Tuesday.
“It is very early. We have not yet recovered the debris. We have not yet examined that wreckage, and I am a person that likes to deal in facts. I will wait until the facts are presented to me from an analysis of that debris before making a statement relating to a pattern,” she said.
“I would also like to mention that there’s intense collaboration regarding the analysis of the debris. We have the FBI involved. We have the RCMP involved. We have the Canadian Armed Forces involved and several aircraft, so this is a collaborative effort and as we move through the process and retrieve the debris and undertake the analysis, we will have more to say.”