JBER-based fighter jets shoot down airborne object off Alaska
President authorizes action, citing threat to civilian aviation posed by 'high-altitude airborne object'
F-22 jet fighters out of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson shot down an airborne object Friday morning off the northern coast of Alaska. Military personnel are now working to recover debris from the object that fell onto some pack ice in an area of the Beaufort Sea.
The incident again raises concern in Alaska and nationwide of foreign surveillance operations over U.S. territory, following last week’s shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon off South Carolina after it had traversed Alaska and the Lower 48.
The U.S. Northern Command scrambled the F-22s that shot down the object at around 9:30 a.m.
“At the direction of the President of the United States, fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully took down a high-altitude airborne object off the northern coast of Alaska at 1:45 p.m. today Eastern Standard Time within U.S. sovereign airspace over U.S. territorial water,” said Air Force Spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.
Ryder said in a news conference Friday afternoon that North American Aerospace Defense Command ground radar detected the object late Thursday night and began tracking it. He said the fighter pilots checked it out, and shot down the object with a Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
“The object was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet, and posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight,” he said.
Ryder said the Northern Command has sent aircraft from the Alaskan Command and Alaska Air National Guard to survey an area where debris from the object fell and begin recovery of the wreckage.
Those include an HC-130 Hercules search and rescue plane and two helicopters, an HH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook. And the Federal Aviation Administration designated a Temporary Flight Restriction around the site, which closes the airspace to all unpermitted aircraft.
“The object was about the size of a small car,” he said, “so not similar in size and shape to the high-altitude surveillance balloon that was taken down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.”
Members of the media at the news conference pressed Ryder repeatedly on why the military was quick to shoot down the object today, but allowed the Chinese surveillance balloon to fly over Alaska and the Lower 48 for days before it was finally shot down Sunday off the east coast.
In response, Ryder repeatedly reiterated that the object threatened civilian aviation, which flies up to about 45,000 feet. He said the Chinese balloon mostly stayed at above 60,000.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski also questioned the rationale.
“Somehow or another, the threat had gotten to the point where it was good to take it (the balloon) down on the east coast, but for some reason we didn’t want to take it down in the north,” Murkowski said in a video statement she posted Friday afternoon.
She said the different responses taken by the military could convince the Chinese that they can get away with spying on Alaska.
“It sends a message to China that if you want to send something to surveil part of the United States of America, Alaska’s your place,” she said. “That’s not the message to send.”
The senator said the incursion should remind Americans of Alaska’s role in national defense. “I say it time and time again -- Alaska is on the front lines of defense for the United States of America.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a similar statement late Friday. “Because of our close proximity to our neighbors, there is very little margin for error,” he said.
U.S. military personnel continued the recovery operation Saturday. And an Arctic sea ice expert with the University of Alaska Fairbanks said the pack ice around the area where the downed object fell may well have been dense enough to hold the object in place on the surface.
"The sea ice concentration looks to be very high in that area," said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the UAF International Arctic Research Center. "So, chances are that ice is at least several feet thick — probably plenty thick enough to support any kind of reasonable weight on it."
Thoman said in an interview Friday that the recovery operation also will benefit from relatively mile weather for the next day or two.
"By Beaufort Sea standards, in the middle of February, it's probably not too bad," he said. He said the temperatures in the area on Friday was around 10 to 15 below zero Fahrenheit, with winds out of the northeast at around 15 miles per hour. But he it's likely to cool off on Saturday.
"Winds are going to be increasing some over the next day or so, and temperatures will be going down. Saturday, we're probably looking at temperatures in the 20-below zero range and colder, and winds 20 to 30 an hour. That would be strong enough for some blowing snow — not likely enough for blizzard conditions, but certainly some wind chill, especially if it takes longer than (Saturday) for them to get things done."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with information on sea-ice conditions and the weekend weather outlook.