© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news conference ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address in Washington, U.S., February 7, 2023. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
By Steve Scherer and Katharine Jackson
OTTAWA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Canadian investigators are hunting for the wreckage of what appears to be a balloon that was shot down by a U.S. jet over Yukon territory, the third unidentified flying object to be destroyed by American fighters.
“Recovery teams are on the ground, looking to find and analyze the object,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Sunday.
“The security of citizens is our top priority and that’s why I made the decision to have that unidentified object shot down,” he said, adding that it had posed a danger to civilian aircraft.
North America has been on high alert for aerial intrusions following the appearance of a white, eye-catching Chinese airship over American skies earlier this month.
The 200-foot-tall (60-meter-high) balloon – which Americans have accused Beijing of using to spy on the United States – caused an international incident, leading Secretary of State Antony Blinken to call off a planned trip to China only hours before he was set to depart.
Surveillance fears appear to have U.S. officials on high alert.
Twice in 24 hours, U.S. officials closed airspace – only to reopen it swiftly. On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration briefly closed space above Lake Michigan. On Saturday, the U.S. military scrambled fighter jets in Montana to investigate a radar anomaly there.
China denies the first balloon was being used for surveillance and says it was a civilian research craft. It condemned the United States for shooting it down off the coast of South Carolina last Saturday.
With military and intelligence officials newly focused on airborne threats, at least two other flying objects have since been destroyed over North America.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told U.S. broadcaster ABC that U.S. officials think the two latest objects were also balloons. The original balloon was brought down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. A second was shot down over sea ice near Deadhorse, Alaska, on Friday. The third was destroyed over the Yukon on Saturday.
“They believe they were (balloons), yes, but much smaller than the first one,” Schumer said.
The White House said only that the recently downed objects “did not closely resemble” the Chinese balloon, echoing Schumer’s description of them as “much smaller.”
Schumer said he was confident U.S. investigators scouring the ocean off South Carolina to recover debris and electronic gadgetry from the original balloon would get to the bottom of what it was being used for.
DEBRIS IN REMOTE LOCALE
Canadian counterparts trying to piece together what was shot down over the Yukon may have their own challenges. The territory is a sparsely populated region in Canada’s far northwest, which borders Alaska. It can be brutally cold in the winter, but temperatures are unusually mild for this time of year which could ease the recovery effort.
Speaking to Fox News, House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said the balloon shot down over the South Carolina coast had been on a mission to get imagery of sensitive American nuclear sites.
“They want to get imagery, get intelligence on our military capability, particularly nuclear,” McCaul said. “And they’re building quite a nuclear stockpile themselves.”
Republican lawmaker Mike Turner, who serves on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, suggested the White House might be overcompensating for what he described as its previously lax monitoring of American airspace.
“They do appear somewhat trigger-happy,” Turner told CNN on Sunday. “I would prefer them to be trigger-happy than to be permissive.”
Republicans have criticized the Biden administration over its handling of the incursion by the suspected Chinese spy balloon, saying it should have been shot down much earlier.