Biden says 3 downed objects were probably tied to scientific research

President  Biden speaks from a presidential lectern.
President Biden discusses his administration’s decision to shoot down a Chinese balloon and three other aerial objects recently on Thursday at the White House.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The mysterious objects U.S. fighter jets shot down over North America in recent days were probably balloons tied to private scientific research and have no connection to the large Chinese balloon the U.S. military destroyed off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, President Biden said Thursday at the White House.

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to the Chinese spy balloon program, or that there were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” he said. “But make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety, security of the American people, I will take it down.”

The U.S. military shot down a trio of unidentified aerial objects in the week after downing the suspected Chinese spy balloon: one near Alaska’s northern coastline last Friday, another over Canada’s Yukon region on Saturday and a third over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula off Lake Huron on Sunday.


In his first public explanation of the episode, Biden said that the three objects did not appear to pose any national security threat and may have been recreational or tied to research institutions. The devices were shot down because they were a hazard to commercial air traffic, he added.

The president directed the intelligence community to develop better protocols for monitoring unidentified aerial objects, and promised to share the new rules with Congress once they are developed. The new defense policies will remain classified to avoid letting other countries dodge them.

The number of objects downed over North America had raised alarm about a potential national security threat, and Republicans and Democrats had urged the White House for days to share more information with the public about what exactly the U.S. shot down and who was behind the mystery devices. White House officials briefed senators Tuesday about the aerial objects.

Pentagon and White House officials emphasized that the objects shot down after Feb. 4 were markedly different in appearance and technological capabilities from the Chinese balloon. The military is shooting down more objects because it has recalibrated its radar settings to better detect slower-moving targets, Pentagon officials said.

Salvage crews are still working to recover the remains of the objects, which National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said has been difficult because of winter weather and the remote, rough terrain where the debris landed. U.S. officials still haven’t seen any indication that the mystery vessels are tied to China, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday.

China has accused the U.S. of flying more than 10 high-altitude balloons through Chinese airspace. White House officials have denied the allegation. Chinese officials have vowed “countermeasures against relevant U.S. entities that undermine China’s sovereignty and security,” and imposed sanctions on American defense manufacturers Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Missiles & Defense over arms sales to Taiwan.


“They’re coming up with excuses and trying to spin this,” Jean-Pierre said, calling the Chinese government’s behavior “irresponsible.”

“It is up to China to decide how they want to move forward with this relationship,” she added.

Biden said that U.S. officials have developed the ability to identify, track and study high-altitude surveillance balloons tied to the Chinese military. Top U.S. military officials advised against immediately shooting down the suspected spy balloon upon its initial discovery earlier this month because of the risk to people on the ground. During the 96 hours that the balloon crossed through U.S. airspace, officials analyzed its capabilities, tracked its path and were able to protect against collection of information from sensitive sites, Biden said.

“We shot it down, sending a clear message ... the violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable,” Biden said.

The president said he plans to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said he made “no apologies” for shooting down the balloon.

“I think the last thing that Xi wants is to fundamentally rip the relationship with the United States and with me,” Biden told NBC’s Peter Alexander in a phone interview after his speech.