WASHINGTON — The Pentagon shot down an unidentified object over frozen waters around Alaska on Friday at the order of President Biden, according to U.S. officials, less than a week after a U.S. fighter jet brought down a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic.
John Kirby, a White House spokesman, confirmed the incident at a news conference on Friday.
U.S. officials said they could not immediately confirm whether the object was a balloon, but it was traveling at an altitude that made it a potential threat to civilian aircraft.
Republicans had called the Biden administration weak for not shooting down the Chinese spy balloon as it hovered over Montana last week, a step that Pentagon generals had advised against for fear that debris could hurt people on the ground.
On Friday, Mr. Kirby said that Mr. Biden ordered the unidentified object near Alaska downed “out of an abundance of caution.”
A U.S. official said the government did not know who owned or sent the object.
The object went down over the Arctic Ocean near the northeast border of Alaska and Canada. The object had traversed over land in Alaska before the fighter jet brought it down. Mr. Kirby said pilots confirmed the object was unmanned before bringing it down.
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Mr. Kirby said the object was traveling at 40,000 feet. He said officials were describing it as an object because that was the best description they had of it.
“President Biden ordered the military to down the object, and they did,” Mr. Kirby said. He added later that a fighter jet took down the object.
A U.S. official said there were “no affirmative indications of military threat” to people on the ground from the object. Officials said they could not confirm whether there was any surveillance equipment on the object that was shot down.
A recovery effort on the debris will be made, Mr. Kirby said. He said the object was “roughly the size of a small car” — much smaller than the spy balloon that had a payload the size of multiple buses.
The action comes less than a week after a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had traversed the United States, according to three American officials.
One official described the latest situation as “fast-moving” and still developing. It is not clear if the object was from an adversarial power, or a commercial or research operation that had gone astray, the official said.
Michael P. Mulroy, a former Pentagon official, said shooting the object down over Alaska was the right place to take action.
“If it was another Chinese spy balloon, that indicates that China is either incompetent in operating these platforms or potentially deliberately provoking the U.S.,” Mr. Mulroy said. “It is also important for the U.S. and China to maintain direct communications during times like this. Especially between the militaries.”
The breach was relatively short, according to officials, which is one reason they could not immediately identify what type of object was involved.
The transit of the Chinese spy balloon last week, which ended with it being shot down Saturday off the South Carolina coast by a F-22 fighter jet, transfixed the American public. The White House has been criticized by some Republican lawmakers for not immediately shooting the balloon down, but President Biden has said he was acting on the recommendation of military officials, who said to wait until the balloon was over water before destroying it to minimize any risk to people on the ground.
Pentagon officials said that balloon posed no threat, and allowing it to stay in the air longer gave the U.S. military time to study it, including having U-2 spy planes take high-resolution images of its equipment.
During internal deliberations, some U.S. officials pressed for options to shoot down the balloon earlier. Officials also reviewed whether the military could use a giant net or hook to bring down the balloon.
U.S. officials say the spy balloon was part of a fleet directed by the Chinese military that has flown over more than 40 countries on five continents in recent years. The balloons are made by one or more civilian-run companies that officially sell products to the military, officials said, though the Biden administration has not publicly identified the company that made the downed balloon.
U.S. officials say a balloon that was drifting over Latin America last week was also part of the Chinese surveillance program.
The New York Times reported last Saturday that a classified intelligence report given to Congress last month highlighted at least two instances of a foreign power using advanced technology for aerial surveillance over American military bases, one inside the continental United States and the other overseas. The research suggested China was the foreign power, U.S. officials said.
The report gave details of a recent government review of unidentified aerial phenomena and, in that context, discussed earlier episodes of surveillance balloons as well as other flying objects.
Adam Entous and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.