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Pentagon says Americans shouldn't worry about the objects the Air Force shot down

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. Air Force is flying overtime.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

U.S. fighter jets have shot down three mystery aircraft in as many days. The unidentified objects were tracked and then shot down after entering North American airspace. It's a lot. So what exactly is going on?

MARTÍNEZ: To bring us up to date, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, they're happening rapidly it seems like. So what happened? I mean, it's almost hard to keep track.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah. That's right. And so the latest was Sunday. A U.S. fighter jet shot down a small, unmanned flying object over Lake Huron, which is just off the shore of Michigan. And then going back to Saturday, an Air Force plane working in coordination with Canada shot down an aircraft over western Canada. Canada's working to recover this, and it's calling it a cylindrical object. And the third one was Friday when the U.S. shot down an aircraft just off the northeast coast of Alaska. It landed off the coast. It's described as the size of a small car. But weather conditions have prevented the military from reaching it, according to U.S. officials.

MARTÍNEZ: And all three came after the U.S. shootdown of China's spy balloon. Are these latest incidents linked to espionage?

MYRE: So they're still investigating. They don't have all the material. But at this point, there's no indication these were spycraft. Now, Air Force General Glen VanHerck, he's the NORAD commander, he gave a briefing on Sunday night. Here's some of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLEN VANHERCK: What we're seeing is very, very small objects. I'm not going to go into detail about shapes or anything like that. This is a very, very slow object in the space, if you will, going at the speed of the wind, essentially.

MYRE: So one of the challenges, he said, is that the fighter jets are streaking past these objects at hundreds of miles an hour. And it's been very hard for pilots to get a good, sustained look. Now, VanHerck and other U.S. officials are stressing a few points here. All these aircraft that were shot down are much smaller than China's spy balloon. None had crew on board. U.S. officials said they didn't pose an imminent threat, but they were shot down out of an abundance of caution.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Greg, then how should we think about this? I mean, a mystery aircraft entering U.S. airspace sounds scary, but is it just that we're just paying more attention to these things since the Chinese spy balloon?

MYRE: Well, A, certainly it seems to be the latter. Now, the Air Force is saying it has recalibrated its radar systems or speed gates, as they're called, which were geared to look more for things like incoming missiles. And the U.S. made this adjustment after the encounter with China's spy balloon. Again, here's General VanHerck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VANHERCK: So if you had radars on all the time that were looking at anything from zero speed up to, say, a hundred, you would see a lot more information. We have adjusted some of those gates to give us better fidelity on seeing slower objects.

MYRE: And so as we learn more about these objects that were shot down, the U.S. may have to decide whether it wants to track every small, slow-moving object and whether the Air Force should scramble the jets every time there is a mysterious blip on the radar.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. We mentioned that Chinese spy balloon was shot down just off the coast of South Carolina. How is that investigation going?

MYRE: So a U.S. official says the balloon's payload with the valuable technical equipment is believed to be intact at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in about 50 feet of water. Now, if this can be recovered and analyzed, the U.S. could get a much better understanding of exactly what the Chinese were up to.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.