Three objects shot down by fighter jets over North America in the past week probably had a “commercial or benign” purpose, the White House has admitted.
The US said it destroyed the objects out of an abundance of caution after an alleged Chinese spy balloon drifted across its airspace earlier this month.
Expensive Sidewinder missiles, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each, downed the objects over Alaska, Canada’s Yukon territory and Lake Huron in Michigan over a three-day period.
It’s still unclear what the UFOs were, and the search for the debris could be hampered by the remote locations.
The White House has now dampened speculation they were similar to the high-altitude balloon shot down on 4 February.
“The intelligence community is considering as a leading explanation that these could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” said national security spokesman John Kirby.
“We don’t see anything that points right now to being part of the PRC [China] spy balloon programme.”
He said they appeared unrelated to “intelligence collection against the United States of any kind” and that no one had come forward to claim the objects.
US officials previously suggested the object shot down over Lake Huron on Sunday could have had a surveillance purpose because it passed near sensitive military sites.
However, they also said all three objects appeared to be a different shape and much smaller than the Chinese balloon – as well as flying considerably lower.
Potential danger to commercial aircraft was cited as a key reason to destroy the objects.
Military commanders also confirmed on Tuesday that it took two missiles to destroy the Lake Huron UFO, after the first one missed and landed in the water.
Timeline of what and where fighter jets have shot down
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military had gone to “great lengths” to ensure there was no risk to the public before the F-16 jet took aim.
“We’re very, very careful to make sure that those shots are in fact safe,” he said.
“And that’s the guidance from the president: Shoot it down, but make sure we minimise collateral damage and we preserve the safety of the American people.”
The comments came a day after the US said key sensors and “significant debris” from the Chinese balloon had been recovered from the sea off South Carolina.
China has denied the balloon was being used for spying and claims it was a weather research device that blew off course.
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Both countries accused each another of operating high-altitude surveillance balloons as tensions between the superpowers increased this week.
Beijing said the US had flown its own balloons over Chinese airspace 10 times over the past year – a claim it denies.
The balloon incident caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a high-profile trip to China.
However, he’s now said to be considering meeting his counterpart, Wang Yi, at a security conference that begins in Munich on Friday.