The search for small balloons shot down recently by US and Canadian fighter jets over Alaska and Lake Huron has been called off, military commanders have said, days after balloon hobbyists in northern Illinois indicated that one of the stray unidentified flying objects could belong to their group.
In a joint statement released at 10 pm on Friday, the North American aerospace defense command (Norand) and the US northern command said they had recommended calling off the search because the objects were believed to have landed in difficult terrain. The US secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, had approved the defense agencies’ recommendation.
The agencies’ statement said: “Search operations conclude today near Deadhorse, Alaska, and on Lake Huron, as search activities have discovered no debris from airborne objects shot down on” 10 and 12 February after “a variety of capabilities, including airborne imagery and sensors, surface sensors and inspections, and subsurface scans” had failed to locate debris.
Arctic conditions and sea ice instability had contributed to the decision to abandon the Alaska search while similar efforts on Lake Huron involving the US and Canadian coast guards, FBI, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had proved fruitless.
On Thursday, Canadian officials said winter conditions and mountainous terrain had hindered its search for wreckage over 1,100 square miles of the Yukon. Officials described the operation as “extremely challenging”.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police also cited “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 decision to call off the search was made a day after Joe Biden addressed the balloon issue, which has ratcheted up tensions between the US and China more than a week after an F-22 punctured a large Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina. The surveillance balloon had floated over sensitive intercontinental ballistic missile launch sites in Montana.
An FBI lab in Virginia was examining recovered fragments of that balloon for “counterintelligence exploitation”, northern command said, and the search for additional debris was canceled.
“We shot it down, sending a … clear message [that] violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable,” Biden said Thursday. “We will act to protect our country.”
Early on Saturday, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, described the US response to the Chinese balloon’s flight over American territory as “hysterical” and “absurd”.
“There are so many balloons all over the world, so is the United States going to shoot all of them down?” Wang said at security conference in Munich.
US defense officials and the Biden administration have said the subsequent balloons appear to have nothing to do with China or any other nation but are instead harmless inflatable craft launched by private companies, recreationists or research institutions.
Aviation Week reported on Thursday that the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade was missing one of its party-style “pico” balloons that had last pinged its position on 10 February at nearly 40,000ft off the west coast of Alaska.
The brigade declared the balloon, on its seventh circumnavigation of the globe, “missing in action”.
But the group has said it has yet to establish that it was its $12 “pico” balloon that was downed by a $400,000 US Sidewinder missile.
“As has been widely reported, no part of the object shot down by the US air force jet over Yukon territory has been recovered,” the hobbyists’ club said in a blogpost.
“Until that happens and that object is confirmed to be an identifiable pico balloon, any assertions or claims that our balloon was involved in that incident are not supported by facts.”
Meanwhile, Scientific Balloon Solutions, a Silicon Valley company that makes pico balloons, appears to have sold out of the three models it offers, listing its highest flying design, SBS-16, as “price and delivery date TBA”.
The company founder, Ron Meadows, told Aviation Week that he had tried to alert authorities about the balloons they were shooting down. “I tried contacting our military and the FBI, and just got the runaround, to try to enlighten them on what a lot of these things probably are,” he said. “They’re going to look not too intelligent to be shooting them down.”