A Navy sailor assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 prepares for transport debris from the Chinese balloon that was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean earlier this month. The U.S. military has downed three unidentified aircraft in as many days. Photo by Ryan Seelbach/U.S. Navy | License Photo
Feb. 13 (UPI) -- As the Pentagon denied Beijing's accusations over U.S. balloons in China airspace, U.S. officials Monday announced the Biden administration is forming an interagency group dedicated to investigating and responding to the kinds of flying objects seen in recent weeks.
"The president, through his national security adviser, has today directed an interagency team to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis, and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday during a White House press briefing.
"Every element of the government will redouble their efforts to understand and mitigate these events," Kirby said.
Earlier Monday, China had accused the United States of flying its balloons into Chinese airspace, and the Pentagon swiftly denied those accusations.
In a press conference Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused the United States of floating at least 10 balloons into Chinese airspace since last year.
"The United States should first reflect on itself and change course, rather than slander, discredit or incite confrontation," Wang said.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson responded to those allegations on Twitter Monday, saying the claims were not true.
"Any claim that the U.S. government operates surveillance balloons over the PRC is false," Watson wrote. "It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the U.S. and over 40 countries across five continents."
Later in the day, Kirby joined White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre's daily briefing to discuss the recent object takedowns, saying the United States knows the first balloon was Chinese and is still investigating the most recent objects encountered. Kirby said U.S. officials do not have "attribution" for the other flying objects.
Kirby did not address the accusations made by Wang and was not asked about them.
Kirby said the United States has determined that China has a high-altitude balloon program used for intelligence collection. The program is connected to China's People's Liberation Army, he said, adding the program was active when President Donald Trump was in office but remained undetected.
Kirby said President Joe Biden directed an initiative to discover such foreign intelligence efforts, which led to the discovery of the program and some of the high-altitude, low-speed objects.
"We have been carefully studying it to learn as much as we can," Kirby said. "We've assessed that at this time these balloons have provided limited additive capabilities to the PRC's other intelligence platforms used over the United States."
Kirby said the surveillance balloons have been tracked over dozens of countries, including ally nations, and across multiple continents. He warned that, if China continues to advance this technology, it could become more useful to U.S. intelligence.
Kirby noted that many entities, including commercial and academic organizations, operate aerial objects at altitudes similar to those of the Chinese surveillance balloon for purposes that are not seen as harmful, such as scientific.
"We do not assess that these most recent objects pose any direct threat to people on the ground and we are laser focused on confirming their nature and purpose, including through intensive efforts to collect debris in the remote locations where they have fallen," he said.
However it was determined that the last two objects flying significantly lower than the Chinese surveillance balloon, moving at an altitude also occupied by commercial airspace between 40,000 and 45,000 feet. Kirby said this created a safety concern.
The objects did not have any sort of propulsion systems onboard, meaning they were not being steered or controlled remotely. It is believed they were instead moved purely by the wind, according to Kirby.
Recovery of both objects is taking place, both in remote locations including under deep water and ice near Alaska and the forests of Canada.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated to reporters upon arrival in Brussels on Monday to participate in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group that aside from the first spy balloon they have yet to fully assess what the other three aerial objects were.
The department's number one priority at the moment is debris recovery, he said.
Of the four aerial objects downed, only debris from the first spy balloon that was shot down Feb. 4 has been collected.
Efforts continue for the objects felled over Alaska on Friday, Canada's northwest Yukon territory on Saturday and Michigan's Lake Huron on Sunday.
In Alaska, the object landed on sea ice and efforts have been hampered by the the wind chill and weather.
In the Yukon, Canada is leading the recovery operation in a "very remote area," he said, adding the effort in Lake Huron is just beginning.
"I want to be clear: the three objects taken down this weekend are very different from what we were talking about last week," he said. "We knew exactly what that was a PRC surveillance balloon."
Wang on Monday reiterated China's stance that the first object -- publicly identified as a spy balloon deployed by Beijing -- carried equipment that measured the weather and went astray while the Biden administration said it was a surveillance balloon flying over sensitive military locations.
Watson said Wang's comments amount to "damage control" over its surveillance operation being exposed.
"It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the U.S. was a weather balloon and has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace, the airspace of others."
In regards to objects shot down in the ensuing days over Montana, Canada and Michigan, which Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday were likely similar balloons to the first, Wang said that he did not "have anything on that."
China has also repeatedly criticized the U.S. decision to shoot down the Chinese balloon, with Wang on Monday characterizing it as a "trigger-happy overreaction."
According to Kirby, the president also stepped up investigations into unidentified aerial objects, holding the first ever daily intelligence briefing on UAOs in June 2021. Biden was informed at that time that the issue of UAOs impacts the entire world.
Jean-Pierre said "there is no indication that of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns."
"We've been hearing a lot about it," she said. "I loved E.T. the movie and I'm just going to leave it there."