WASHINGTON — The U.S. military shot down an unidentified object Sunday over Lake Huron, the Pentagon confirmed — the fourth flying object in less than two weeks to be downed over North American airspace.
In a statement, the Department of Defense said the shootdown, by an F-16 fighter firing an AIM9x missile, took place at 2:42 p.m. at roughly 20,000 feet altitude.
President Joe Biden gave the order, based on the recommendations of military leadership after the object’s path and altitude raised concerns about risks to civil aviation. It was judged not to be a military threat but could have had surveillance capabilities, the statement said.
A senior administration official described the object to NBC News as an octagonal structure with strings hanging off, but no discernible payload.
The official said the U.S. Northern Command and NORAD initially detected a radar contact and sent fighter aircraft to investigate. Those aircraft did not identify any object to correlate to the radar hits, which led NORTHCOM and NORAD to believe it could be an anomaly and to continue to monitor the situation.
But on Sunday Morning, NORAD detected an object and maintained visual and radar tracking of it, the Pentagon statement said. “Based on its flight path and data we can reasonably connect this object to the radar signal picked up over Montana, which flew in proximity to sensitive DOD sites. “
The location of the shootdown was chosen to minimize risks to people on the ground and to improve chances for recovering the debris, the statement said. There were no indications of any civilians hurt or otherwise affected, it said.
The FAA briefly closed some airspace over Lake Michigan on Sunday to support Department of Defense activities, the agency said in a statement. The airspace has since been reopened.
The administration official described the object as an octagonal structure with strings hanging off, but no discernible payload.
Rep. Jack Bergman, whose district includes the area where the object was shot down, tweeted that he had been briefed about the shootdown and in a later post called the response a “decisive action, using the right equipment.”
He also noted the challenges that debris recovery could present. “Lake Huron is very, very cold this time of year. They’re going to have to use some special diving capabilities to get down there.”
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, earlier Sunday tweeted, “The object has been downed by pilots from the US Air Force and National Guard. Great work by all who carried out this mission both in the air and back at headquarters. We’re all interested in exactly what this object was and it’s [sic] purpose. She added that will continue to ask Congress for a full briefing.”
After news broke that the object had been downed, Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., tweeted that they had been notified by the Department of Defense that an object over Lake Huron had been shot down.
After the Chinese surveillance balloon was downed this month, the U.S. military is now looking at a wider range of radar data as it monitors North American airspace and is looking at more objects and smaller objects that it might have filtered out as clutter in the past, two U.S. Defense officials told NBC News. The Washington Post was first to report this shift.
It remains unclear whether the military is now spotting objects that have been present but not noticed, or there are new aerial objects that were not present before.
One U.S. Defense official said that the North American Aerospace Defense Command is looking at more raw radar data than previously.
“The easiest comparison is an online search for a car, when you use filters for color, model, etc, and see the search results, then go back and say turn off the color filter and you see more options,” the official told NBC News. “The data was always there, but due to how we process radar data into visualizations for decision-making, some of that data was screened out. We’re actively adjusting that process now to refine how we see, which of course affects what we see.”
“We don’t yet know whether these phenomena have been there for a while and we’re just now seeing them, or if this is new,” the official added. “Between data from object recovery and going through or technical radar data, we are working toward better understanding.”
On Feb. 4, a Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down by an F-22 Raptor with a missile off the coast of South Carolina near Myrtle Beach.
Then, on Friday the U.S. military shot down a “high-altitude object” flying over Alaskan airspace and Arctic waters. National Security Council official John Kirby at the White House described the object flying at an altitude of roughly 40,000 feet as “roughly the size of a small car.”
A day later, on Saturday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down another unidentified object in the skies over Canada on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s orders.