The search for an unidentified flying object shot down over Lake Huron last weekend has been suspended, the RCMP said Thursday, citing “deteriorating weather and the low probability of recovery.”
The update came hours after U.S. President Joe Biden said that object and two others shot down over Canada and the U.S. do not appear to have come from China or any other country and did not have surveillance capabilities.
The RCMP said in a statement it is continuing to search for the remains of the object brought down over Yukon last Saturday, but noted that operation is also proving to be difficult.
“The conditions are extremely challenging with a very large search area, spanning 3,000 square kilometers, and consisting of rugged and mountainous terrain with a high level of snowpack and harsh winter conditions,” the police force said.
U.S. military officials have said the “difficult terrain” in northern Alaska, where the first of the three objects was shot down last Friday, was making recovery operations challenging as well. That operation, unlike the searches for the Lake Huron and Yukon objects, is being led solely by U.S. agencies.
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The three objects were shot down in quick succession not long after a Chinese surveillance balloon that had flown over Canada and the U.S. was shot down earlier this month. That event led NORAD, the continental air defence network, to closely scrutinize North American airspace — leading to the discovery of the three objects Biden confirmed were most likely benign.
“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were, but nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” Biden said Thursday in his most extensive comments yet on the objects.
“The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research.”
Speaking to reporters in Nassau later on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not echo Biden’s assessment, only saying “we still don’t know exactly what these objects are” and defending the choice to protect civilian airspace.
Biden also confirmed reports that he has directed National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to lead an “interagency team” to review U.S. procedures on dealing with unidentified objects in the skies. The team will create a set of updated “classified policy parameters” that will be delivered to Congress and remain classified, he said.
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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier Thursday there would be “updated protocols” announced this week.
Those will also include new rules and regulations for launching unmanned objects into U.S. airspace, as well as a better inventory of those devices, Biden said.
Trudeau said Canada would work closely with the Biden administration to ensure those protocols protect North American airspace.
“We’re absolutely going to be working together to ensure that we have procedures in place going forward that are going to be appropriate for these sorts of situations,” he said.
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Biden has stayed largely silent on the issue of the three objects downed Friday off the coast of Alaska, Saturday over Yukon and Sunday over Lake Huron. The White House and other U.S. officials said at the time the objects posed a risk to civilian aircraft and that they could not rule out the possibility they had surveillance capabilities.
The president did not take questions from reporters Thursday who tried to press him on whether his decision to shoot down the objects was in response to political criticism that his administration waited too long to take action against the Chinese balloon, allowing it to drift for days across the continental U.S. before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.
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He did say that he was advised by the Pentagon not to give the order to shoot down the Chinese balloon while it was over land, citing the safety of civilians below due to the “sheer size of it.”
After taking steps to protect sensitive information along the balloon’s path, the decision was made to bring it down over water to protect civilians and allow the recovery of materials, including sensors that will be analyzed.
“And then we shot it down, sending a clear message,” Biden said. “The violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable. We will act to protect our country. And we did.
“We seek competition, not conflict with China,” he said later. “We’re not looking for a new Cold War. But I make no apologies.”
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China has claimed responsibility for the balloon but said it was a weather aircraft, not one tied to surveillance or espionage. Beijing has sharpened its rhetoric against the U.S. in recent days, however, threatening to take action against the entities that shot down the balloon without giving details.
U.S. officials have said China operates a fleet of such balloons, which are a relatively inexpensive and difficult-to-detect method of gathering intelligence.
Amid the rising tensions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to China last week. Blinken travels Thursday to the Munich Security Conference amid speculation he might use the opportunity to meet top Chinese foreign policy official Wang Yi who will also be attending the conference.
Biden said Blinken will lead efforts to establish a set of “global norms” for detecting, monitoring and responding to flying objects when travelling into sovereign airspace.
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He added he himself would be speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the balloon and broader foreign interference concerns, but did not give a timeline for that conversation.
Earlier this week, Jean-Pierre and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby confirmed that U.S. intelligence agencies were considering a “leading explanation” that the objects shot down last weekend are benign.
American and Canadian military units are still working to recover materials from the downed objects; their efforts have been hampered by difficult weather conditions.
— with files from the Associated Press