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U.S. suspends search for objects shot down over Alaska and Lake Huron

Feb. 18, 2023 Updated Sat., Feb. 18, 2023 at 8:02 p.m.

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a surveillance balloon on Feb. 5 off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C.  (Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/U.S. Navy)
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a surveillance balloon on Feb. 5 off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/U.S. Navy)
By Andrew Jeong Washington Post

U.S. and Canadian authorities suspended recovery operations for debris from the aerial objects they shot down last week over Alaska, Lake Huron and the Yukon, officials from both countries said Friday, as the chances of recovery narrowed and it became more likely that the objects were innocuous research or recreation balloons.

The move to suspend searches in Alaska and Lake Huron was recommended by the U.S. Northern Command and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin concurred with the decision. It came after American troops, federal agencies and Canadian officials discovered “no debris from airborne objects” after a search using airborne imagery sensors as well as subsurface scans in Lake Huron and the Alaskan town of Deadhorse, according to the release.

Later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police also announced they would suspend their search efforts in the Yukon for the aerial object shot down on Feb. 11 after not finding the debris.

“Given the snowfall that has occurred, the decreasing probability the object will be found and the current belief the object is not tied to a scenario that justifies extraordinary search efforts, the RCMP is terminating the search,” the Canadian national police service said in a statement.

Since downing a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon Feb. 4, the Biden administration has faced pressure to disclose more information about how a foreign craft had entered and lingered over U.S. airspace.

The following week, officials said they had taken down three more high-altitude unidentified objects that they later said were probably not from China, but harmless objects tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions. Those objects were shot down over Alaska on Feb. 10, Canada’s Yukon Territory on Feb. 11 and Lake Huron on Feb. 12.

The Pentagon has rejected accusations that defense officials bowed to political pressure and overreacted by shooting down the three airborne objects last week. Lawmakers from both major parties had pushed for a more aggressive response to the suspected surveillance balloon before it was shot down on Feb. 4, calling it a clear example of Chinese provocation.

The recovery efforts for the aerial objects shot down over Alaska and Lake Huron appeared to be less robust than those dedicated to the balloon previously taken down near South Carolina, terminating after several days.

The U.S. military said earlier Friday that it had concluded operations aimed at retrieving debris from the Chinese balloon shot down on Feb. 4. Navy sailors had recovered parts of the balloon itself and parts of its structure, according to earlier photos released by the Navy. The debris is being sent to an FBI lab for “counterintelligence exploitation,” the Northern Command said.

Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said it was “credible” that the aerial objects shot down over Alaska, Yukon and Lake Huron were harmless. “But that prompts a question as to why the administration would sortie fighters and shoot them down without correctly identifying them in the first place,” he said.

The timing of Friday’s announcement about the suspension of two recovery operations – the news dropped at about 10 p.m. before a three-day holiday weekend – also raised eyebrows.

“The decision to then bury that in late Friday news before the holiday looks like avoiding the question,” said Herzinger.

The Biden administration may be seeking to lower tensions with Beijing to set up conditions for high-level talks, said Chong Ja Ian, a scholar of U.S.-China relations at the National University of Singapore. He noted that such discussions could take place this weekend in Munich, where Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are attending a security conference. Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, is also in attendance.

On Saturday, Wang described the U.S. handling of the balloon incident, which heightened tensions between the two countries, as “hysterical” and “absurd.” Beijing has denied that its balloon was sent to conduct surveillance.

”There are so many balloons all over the world, so is the United States going to shoot all of them down?,” Wang said at the Munich Security Conference.

Blinken and Wang met Saturday in Munich and discussed the balloon incident, according to Blinken.

”I condemned the incursion of the PRC surveillance balloon and stressed it must never happen again,” Blinken said. “I also emphasized the importance of keeping open lines of communication.”

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