A top U.S. official said Monday that a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew near sensitive U.S. military bases in the Middle East last fall but stayed far enough away that the military decided to not shoot them down.
The balloon originated in or close to China, a senior U.S. official told The New York Times, and traveled against prevailing winds, meaning that it had its own propulsion system.
The military tracked the balloon’s journey from Asia to the Middle East.
The report noted that the top American air commander in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, appeared to make reference to the incident during a meeting with reporters this week but would not give details about it because it was classified.
“It never got to the point where it was a high enough concern,” he said. “We just monitored it.”
The news comes after the U.S. military has shot down several objects over the last two weeks, including a Chinese spy balloon on the first Saturday of the month, an unidentified object over Alaska on Friday, an unidentified object over Canada on Saturday, and an unidentified object over Lake Huron on Sunday.
Following the incident at the start of the week over Lake Huron, U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the commander who oversees North American airspace, did not rule out aliens when asked about the incident.
When asked if the U.S. military had ruled out an extraterrestrial origin for the unidentified objects, VanHerck responded: “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.”
“At this point we continue to assess every threat or potential threat, unknown, that approaches North America with an attempt to identify it,” VanHerck continued.
A U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jet shot down the unidentified “octagonal” object over Lake Huron using a Sidewinder missile.
An anonymous U.S. defense official later told Reuters, “No indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent take downs.”
VanHerck said that U.S. officials seemed confident that the objects were not balloons.
“I’m not going to categorize them as balloons. We’re calling them objects for a reason,” VanHerck said. “I’m not able to categorize how they stay aloft. It could be a gaseous type of balloon inside a structure or it could be some type of a propulsion system. But clearly, they’re — they’re able to stay aloft.”
VenHerck said that U.S. officials considered trying to use the fighter jet’s machine guns to shoot down the objects so that the objects would be better preserved after they were shot down.
“We assessed taking a gunshot yesterday in that event, as well as today, and the pilots in each situation felt that that was really unachievable because of the size, especially yesterday in the altitude and also because of the challenge to acquire it visually because it’s so small,” VanHerck said.
“We have taken extreme caution to ensure that we limit potential collateral damage, so today, we worked closely with the FAA to clear out the airspace,” he added. “I gave direction specifically to the pilots to use their visual acuity to check for mariners on the ground, airplanes in the air to clear with their radars as well. And when they were comfortable, that we can minimize collateral damage, they selected the best weapon today that was the AIM 9x (missile). And they took the shot.”