The latest on U.S. fighter jets shooting objects out of the sky : NPR

There is much confusion as to how US fighter jets have been able to shoot so many objects out of the sky in recent days. The White House is under pressure to explain.


Three times in the past three days, US warplanes shot down slow-flying objects high over North America — one in Alaska, one in the Yukon of northern Canada and yesterday over Lake Huron. These came about a week after the US shot down a Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina. It’s all extremely strange. And today at the White House, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wanted to make one thing clear.


KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: There is no — again, no evidence of extraterrestrials or extraterrestrial activity…


JEAN-PIERRE: …With these recent takedowns.

CHANG: Damn – OK, so no aliens. But what were they? I am now joined by NPR’s Scott Detrow and Greg Myre. hey to both of you



CHANG: All right. So, Scott, I want to start with you. You were at the White House for this briefing today. What else do we know about these strange things in the air?

DETROW: Except they’re not aliens. Well, yes, White House spokesman John Kirby kept emphasizing that the US government still doesn’t have answers to the really big questions here — who launched these objects and what these objects were doing in the sky. And Kirby said the government is working to salvage debris to find out. And he says the US has taken the same steps in all three recent cases.


JOHN KIRBY: We evaluated whether they posed a kinetic threat to humans on the ground. They have not. We evaluated whether they were sending any communication signals. We haven’t found any. We checked to see if they maneuvered or had propulsion capabilities. We haven’t seen any signs of it. And we determined whether they were manned or not. They were not.

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DETROW: But in any case, he said the US couldn’t rule out surveillance capabilities, so the President ordered them shot down.

CHANGE: Okay. But, Greg, why do so many of these mysterious things suddenly seem to be floating in the sky?

MYRE: Yes, Ailsa, I think it’s two things. First, the discovery of the Chinese spy balloon was just so unusual, so public. You know, spying shouldn’t be public.

CHANG: Right.

MYRE: And that put the national security community on high alert. And when you start looking for something, you often find more of it. And second, the Air Force says they changed the parameters on their radar. The filters looked for things like rockets and jet planes, not high-altitude, slow-flying balloons. So the parameters are – were set wider. And think of it like an email filter. The US was looking for important things, possible threats. And other stuff went in junk mail. When the Chinese balloon was uncovered, the US went back and looked at old junk mail. It looked like the Chinese balloons had come several times over the past few years. And then, over the past week, the US has picked up other slow-moving objects it couldn’t identify and shot them down.

CHANGE: Okay. So when you dig through this junk mail, I mean aside from the possibility of surveillance, how do you decide what to shoot and what not?

MYRE: So the Air Force has the right to step in and shoot something down immediately if there is hostile action or intent. But as Scott said or we just heard, that really wasn’t the case. So the information was taken – worked its way up the chain. President Biden apparently made the decision to shoot it down basically because these objects were considered a potential risk to civilian aircraft. A few were about 40,000 feet. Another was at 20,000 feet. So it could have gotten in the way of other planes. We still don’t know if it belonged to a state, a private company, or an academic institution, for example.

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CHANGE: Okay. But, Scott, I’m curious because I know the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, spoke about all of this today. Why haven’t we heard from President Biden yet?

DETROW: I mean, that’s a great question. President Biden had no public events today. There have been many calls for explanations of all this. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted this morning that NORAD has never shot down a plane over US airspace in its 65-year history. In the 10 days they shot down one balloon and three objects. Americans need to hear this directly from their President today. So Biden hasn’t talked about it. The administration informed the legislature. And we’ve got — you know, as you’ve heard, today we got a lot of details from the White House, if not from the President. I was struck by one thing – that Kirby kept contrasting how much the US knew about that first spy balloon and how much the US didn’t know about those last three objects, even noting several times that there might be a possibility that some of these came from commercial or research companies. It’s very unclear right now.

CHANGE: Okay. Well, in the time that we have left, I’d like to get a few quick parting thoughts from each of you. What will you pay attention to? Do we aliens still give hope, Greg?

MYRE: Well, I wouldn’t hold your breath. We should note that China and the US have massive, sophisticated espionage programs. They spy on each other all the time. And many in the national security community see the spy balloon as an important wake-up call because it really puts the focus on Chinese espionage, and they believe there needs to be more of it. Still, many see the balloon program in China’s relatively low-level activities as just a small part of this Chinese effort targeting US government and military secrets.

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CHANG: Scott.

DETROW: I mean, I always hope for aliens. But seriously, Biden and the White House talk so much about controlled competition with China, not conflict. Now that US fighter jets are shooting objects out of the sky, I think there is a real risk that relations could drift towards conflict. So how does this de-escalate? That’s my big question.

CHANG: This is NPR’s Scott Detrow and Greg Myre. Thank you both.


MYRE: I’m glad.

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