The U.S. military on Friday shot down another high-altitude object that crossed into territorial airspace, taking it out off the coast of Alaska with a Raytheon Technologies [RTX]-built AIM-9X Sidewinder missile fired from an F-22 fighter aircraft.

White House and Pentagon officials said the object, first detected on Thursday, was flying at 40,000 feet and presented a “threat to the safety of civilian flight,” while noting no details have been confirmed yet on the origin or ownership of the system and its potential capabilities.

Pentagon Press Secretary U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder conducts a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2022. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza)

“Out of an abundance of caution and the recommendation of the Pentagon, President Biden ordered the military to down the object. And they did. And it came down inside our territorial waters. Those waters right now are frozen, but [it was downed] inside territorial airspace and over territorial waters,” John Kirby, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told reporters. “We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now. We don’t know who owns it, whether it’s state-owned or corporate-owned or privately-owned. We just don’t know…and we don’t understand the full purpose. We don’t have any information that would confirm a stated purpose for this object.”

This is the second high-altitude object the U.S. military has shot down in less than a week, following the use of an F-22 and AIM-9X missile to take out a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina last Saturday after it had traversed eastward across the U.S. (Defense Daily, Feb. 6). 

Kirby said the high-altitude object shot down on Friday was “much, much smaller” than the recent Chinese surveillance balloon and was assessed to not possess the same self-propulsion and maneuver capabilities. 

“The way it was described to me was roughly the size of a small car as opposed to a payload that was two or three buses’ size,” Kirby said, adding that this object had “no significant payload.”

Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) first detected the object on Thursday with a ground radar and then used aircraft to investigate further.

“At this point, considering the fact that we’re still assessing the object, I don’t want to get into characterizing it,” Ryder said, when asked if it could classified as a “balloon.”

Ryder said the object was traveling in a “northeasterly direction,” with Kirby noting earlier that “the general area would be just off the very, very northeastern part of Alaska, right near the Alaska-Canada border” where it was shot down into the Arctic Ocean.

NORTHCOM has started operations to recover debris from the object, with Ryder adding that HC-130, HH-60 and CH-47 aircraft are assisting with the effort. 

Ryder was asked whether the recent airspace intrusions are leading the Pentagon to assess its capabilities for counter-balloon or “counter-object” detection at such high altitudes.

“In the Air Force sometimes we talk about ‘Don’t get platform specific.’ So what we’re talking about is monitoring the domain and having domain awareness,” Ryder responded. “We’re continuing to learn more about this program, which allows us to identify and track objects and, thus, ensure that we’re continuing to protect our skies and our airspace.”

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, told reporters on Monday the Chinese surveillance balloon incidents, to include three such incidents during the Trump presidency and another incursion into U.S. airspace earlier in the Biden administration, have highlighted a “domain awareness gap” (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, during a hearing Thursday said he wants the fiscal year 2024 budget to include funding and plans to help the Pentagon avoid future intrusions into U.S. airspace and pressed DoD officials on the decision making process related to the tracking and eventual shooting down of the Chinese balloon last week (Defense Daily, Feb. 9). 

Ryder on Friday also provided an update on the ongoing operation to recover debris from last week’s Chinese surveillance balloon. 

“While I won’t go into specifics due to classification reasons, I can say that we have located a significant amount of debris so far that will prove helpful to our further understanding of this balloon and its surveillance capabilities,” Ryder said.