Officials also said a missile fired at one of three sites over Lake Huron on Sunday missed its target.
BRUSSELS, Belgium — The White House acknowledged Tuesday that three still-unidentified aerial targets shot down by the U.S. last week were merely “benign targets,” drawing a distinction between them and a huge Chinese hot air balloon that used to cross the US with the intended purpose of tracking.
“The intelligence community is considering as the primary explanation that these may simply be balloons associated with some commercial or benign purpose,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.
Officials also said the missile was fired at one of three targets, over Lake Huron on Sundaymissed its intended target and landed in the water before the second one did.
The new details emerged as the Biden administration’s actions over the past two weeks came under renewed scrutiny in Congress.
First, U.S. fighter jets did not shoot down what officials said was a Chinese spy balloon until it had crossed most of the United States, citing security concerns. The military then deployed F-22 fighter jets with heat-seeking missiles to quickly shoot down the presumably innocuous targets.
Taken together, the actions have raised political questions as well as security questions about whether the Biden administration overreacted after being criticized by Republicans for being too slow to respond to the large balloon.
While more information is emerging about the three objects, questions remain about what they were, who sent them, and how the U.S. might respond to unidentified airborne objects in the future.
Questions remain about the original balloon, including what spying capabilities it had and whether it transmitted signals when it flew over sensitive military sites in the United States. According to a US official, US intelligence believed he was initially on his way to the US territory of Guam.
The U.S. tracked him for days after he left China, said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence. According to the official, it appears that it departed from its original trajectory and ended up over the continental United States.
Balloons and other unidentified objects have previously been spotted over Guam, a strategic hub for the US Navy and Air Force in the western Pacific.
It is unclear how much control China maintained of the balloon when it veered off its original trajectory. A second U.S. official said the balloon could have been piloted from the outside or directed to hover over a specific target, but it was unclear whether Chinese forces had done so.
Even less is known about the three objects struck over three consecutive days, Friday through Sunday, in part because it was difficult to retrieve debris from remote locations in the Canadian Yukon, off northern Alaska and near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Lake Huron. . So far, officials have no indication that they were involved in a broader surveillance operation along with the balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.
“We don’t see anything that would indicate involvement in the PRC’s spy balloon program,” Kirby told reporters, referring to the People’s Republic of China. It is also unlikely that the facilities were “gathering intelligence against the United States of any kind — that is now an indication.”
Kirby said no country or private company has laid claim to any of the facilities. They don’t seem to have been controlled by the US government.
On Monday, Kirby hinted that the three facilities differed in substance from the balloon, including their size. And his comments on Tuesday marked an apparent effort by the White House to draw a line between the balloon, which officials say was part of a Chinese military program that spanned five continents, and objects that the administration says may simply be part of some research. or commercial endeavors.
In Washington, Pentagon officials met with senators for a secret briefing on the beatings. Lawmakers expressed concern for their constituents about the need to keep them informed and assured them that the objects were not extraterrestrial in nature, but wanted more details.
However, Sen. Tom Tillis, RN.C., said the successful recent intercepts will likely have a “calming effect” and make future shootings less likely.
Senator Lindsay Graham, RSC, told reporters after the briefing that he did not think the facilities posed a threat.
“They’re trying to figure out — you know, there’s a lot of garbage. So you have to figure out what is a threat and what is not. When you see something, you don’t always have to shoot it down,” Graham said.
Biden ordered national security adviser Jake Sullivan to form an interagency team to study the detection, analysis and “elimination of unidentified aerial objects” that could pose a security threat.
Recent targets have also drawn the attention of world leaders, including Canada, where one was shot down on Saturday, and the UK, where the prime minister ordered a security review.
Japan’s defense ministry said on Tuesday that at least three flying objects spotted in Japanese airspace since 2019 were strongly believed to be Chinese spy balloons.
Meanwhile, US officials confirmed that the first missile aimed at a target over Lake Huron fell into the water and the second hit its target.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military had taken “a lot of effort” to make sure none of the strikes put civilians at risk, including determining the size of the debris field and the maximum effective range of the missiles used.
“We’re very, very careful to make sure these shots are really safe,” Milley said. “And this is the president’s order. Shoot him down, but make sure we minimize collateral damage and keep the American people safe.”
The object shot down on Sunday was the third in several days to be shot out of the sky. The White House said that these objects differed in size and maneuverability Chinese observation balloon that American fighter jets were shot down earlier this month, but their altitude was low enough to pose a danger to civilian air traffic.
Weather problems and the remote locations of the three sites over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron are still hampering recovery efforts.
Milley was in Brussels with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with members of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on additional weapons and Kiev’s defense needs ahead of Russia’s expected spring offensive.