After China balloon scare, Air Force shoots down object flying above Alaska’s North Slope

A Pentagon spokesperson said the shootdown was ordered by President Joe Biden

By: - February 10, 2023 10:54 am
A Chinese balloon flies above Billings, Montana, on Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo by Chase Doak, Special to States Newsroom)

A Chinese balloon flies above Billings, Montana, on Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo by Chase Doak, special to States Newsroom)

An F-22 fighter jet from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson shot down an unidentified object flying above Alaska’s North Slope on Friday, officials at the White House said.

The shootdown, at 9:45 a.m. Alaska time, took place less than a week after an Air Force fighter jet shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

Federal officials repeatedly declined to say whether the object was a balloon.

John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House, said in a news conference that the object on Friday was “much, much smaller” than the Chinese surveillance balloon and was “about the size of a small car.”

Kirby said it wasn’t immediately clear whether the object was from China.

President Joe Biden ordered the object be shot down, Kirby said. It was traveling at an elevation of about 40,000 feet and could have posed a threat to commercial aviation, he said.

NORAD, in charge of air defense over North America, detected the object with ground-based radar on Thursday, according to the Defense Department.

A fighter jet inspected it visually, Kirby said. The president gave his order Friday morning after consulting military officials, and a jet conducted a second visual inspection before the balloon was shot down with an air-to-air missile.

Kirby said the flybys didn’t reveal much. 

“They did the best they could, but again the speed and the conditions up there as well as the size of the object made it a little bit more difficult,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Defense Department spokesperson, said the object’s origin isn’t yet known.

“We will know more once we’re able to potentially recover some of those materials. But the primary concern again was the potential hazard to civilian flight,” he said.

Ryder declined to say how quickly the object was moving, but Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said it was moving at about 40 knots — about 46 mph — and had no wings. The object was somewhere “between a 55 gallon drum and a small Volkswagen” in size, Sullivan said.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction over Prudhoe Bay, portions of the North Slope and the Arctic Ocean on Friday morning. At least one flight carrying oilfield workers was delayed, according to a scheduling announcement given to the Beacon by a worker.

State Rep. Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiagvik, represents the North Slope and said there is limited air traffic in the area — a regular flight to Kaktovik, plus commercial flights carrying cargo and passengers into Prudhoe Bay.

After the shootdown, the object fell onto sea ice offshore.

Online flight tracking services showed a C-130 from Elmendorf Air Force Base circling south of Prudhoe Bay for much of the morning before flying offshore and circling above a spot northeast of Prudhoe Bay.

Ryder said helicopters were also involved in the effort.

In a congressional hearing this week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was angered that the earlier Chinese balloon was allowed to travel across Alaska and much of the United States before being shot down.

In an interview with NBC News on Friday, Murkowski said the latest shootdown is a declaration that “when you threaten Alaska’s sovereignty, you threaten the nation’s sovereignty. Regardless of where the threat comes from, the U.S. military will respond with all force necessary to eliminate it.”

Like Murkowski, Sullivan criticized the federal government’s response to the earlier incident. Asked Friday whether he believes the latest shootdown came in response to congressional criticism, he said, “I think you’ll have to ask the White House and the president that question. I don’t know the answer at all. But I will tell you this: I think there’s strong bipartisan support (for Friday’s action).”

He praised those involved in the shootdown, characterizing it as “a varsity-level operation” involving multiple agencies.

Patkotak said Friday’s incident indicates a need for military infrastructure development on the North Slope in order to respond to similar incidents. Any such development should be done only after consulting local communities, he said.

Reporter Ashley Murray contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the description of air service into Kaktovik.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].