How Downing of Mystery 'Object' Over Alaska Compares to Chinese Spy Balloon

An unidentified "high-altitude object" was shot down by an F-22 warplane on Friday, off the coast of Alaska, on the orders of President Joe Biden.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the object had been flying at around 40,000 feet, and was a "reasonable threat" to aviation in the area.

It came less than a week after an F-22 took down a suspected Chinese spy balloon, over the ocean near South Carolina on February 4, sparking a diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing.

Newsweek has compared the two cases to establish what they have in common, and what separates them.

What Was Shot Down?

Recovery of shot down balloon
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon on February 5, 2023 off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. On Friday a second unidentified object was shot down over Alaska. Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/U.S. Navy/GETTY

U.S. authorities have provided significant details about the spy balloon shot down on February 4, which the State Department said contained equipment that was "clearly for intelligence surveillance."

General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, described the balloon as being 200 feet from top to bottom.

Beijing admitted the balloon originated in China, but insisted it was a weather airship designed for civilian use.

After the balloon was shot down, the Chinese foreign office said: "The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the U.S. side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the U.S. due to force majeure—it was completely an accident."

By contrast we know relatively little about the object that was shot down off the northern coast of Alaska on Friday.

Kirby said its origins and purpose are unclear, in contrast to the surveillance balloon which U.S. authorities directly pinned on Beijing.

He also said the object was "the size of a small car," so significantly smaller than the balloon which was downed on February 4.

Where Were the Objects Shot Down?

The Chinese surveillance balloon had traveled across the United States before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina. The balloon made its way from China across Alaska and Canada, according to U.S. authorities, before its existence was made public whilst it was over Montana.

Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the balloon was "well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground."

The Biden administration decided not to shoot the balloon down over the continental United States after being warned this would endanger people on the ground, according to The Washington Post.

The unidentified object shot down on Friday was also brought down over the sea, to the north of Alaska, by an F-22.

However, unlike with the balloon, authorities were clear it posed a "reasonable threat" to aviation in the area.

Political Reaction

News that a Chinese surveillance balloon was flying over the United States caused an intense political reaction, with prominent Republicans criticizing the Biden administration for not immediately shooting it down.

Arizona GOP Representative Andy Biggs tweeted: "How on Earth is Beijing Biden allowing a CCP military balloon to fly freely over Montana? Biden is a feckless commander in chief."

Conservative writer Carmine Sabia added: "China is laughing at President Joe Biden. A suspected Chinese spy balloon in United States airspace. Imagine them attempting that with any other president."

However, Republican Senator Mitt Romney later said he agreed with the decision not to down the balloon until it was over the sea.

By contrast, there was almost no political controversy about Friday's unidentified object, with knowledge of its existence only being made public after it had been shot down.