Culture & Society

Don’t Call Them UFOs, But U.S. Military Pilots Are Having a Lot of Aerial Encounters with Unknown Objects

A new U.S. intelligence assessment says that phenomena once termed UFOs are real and possibly a threat to national security

Image Credit: George Manolis/EyeEm

The most startling revelation in the U.S. government’s report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) released on June 25 is that apparently there is something out there. According to the publicly available unclassified version of the report: “Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.” The unclassified version just isn’t saying what those physical objects definitively are.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which produced the preliminary assessment, delivered a classified version to Congress and the White House, so presumably more detailed information will be forthcoming, either officially or through leaks. Nevertheless, the report everybody gets to read clearly states that the vast majority of UAP cases investigated remain unexplained and that some of these represent hazards to flight safety and “may pose a challenge to national security,” which is another amazing statement.

Cause for Concern

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), which conducted the investigations described in the intelligence assessment, examined 144 cases where U.S. military personnel reported observing UAP. Of these, one was subsequently identified as a large deflating balloon slipping into the ocean. Analysts cannot yet place the remaining 143 cases into one of their four categories of explainable sources: airborne clutter (e.g., birds, recreational drones, airborne debris), natural atmospheric phenomena, U.S. government or industry developmental programs and foreign adversary systems. They are simply classified as “other.” The perceived threat comes from three potential sources:

  1. In 11 of the incidents, pilots reported near misses with one of these objects.
  2. Some of the encounters may represent sophisticated data collection activities by a foreign government against the United States.
  3. And some of these incidents might be evidence that China, Russia or some other potential adversary is using a new technology we don’t yet know about or understand.

At the same time, nowhere does the report say that the “other” category includes extraterrestrial craft or technology of some kind. Moreover, it leaves open the possibility that some of the phenomena could be caused by sensor anomalies or even spoofing by adversaries.

However, it does say that a number of the encounters seem to be with physical objects that perform in extreme and unexpected ways that are beyond the capabilities of known U.S. or, as far as we know, foreign aircraft.

In 18 incidents, described in 21 reports, observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics.

Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernable means of propulsion. In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings.

The UAPTF holds a small amount of data that appear to show UAP demonstrating acceleration or a degree of signature management. Additional rigorous analysis is necessary by multiple teams or groups of technical experts to determine the nature and validity of these data. We are conducting further analysis to determine if breakthrough technologies were demonstrated.

Signature management refers to purposeful changes in the appearance (and even disappearance) of the UAP over the course of the observation. In other words, some objects were reported to alter their brightness or shape seemingly in a purposeful way. Significantly, the preliminary assessment says that 80 of the reports involved multiple sensors on our end, which is seen as corroborating the existence of an object of some kind.

“Sensor vantage points and the numbers of sensors concurrently observing an object play substantial roles in distinguishing UAP from known objects and determining whether a UAP demonstrates breakthrough aerospace capabilities,” the report says. “Optical sensors have the benefit of providing some insight into relative size, shape, and structure. Radiofrequency [radar] sensors provide more accurate velocity and range information.”

On the optical side, many U.S. military aircraft carry forward-looking infrared cameras in pods or turrets. These sensors produce video images from heat differences and are used for surveillance and targeting. The videos look like black-and-white movies and can be extremely clear, depending on conditions and how far away the object is.

Infrared imagery was a source for three videos that made the rounds online in unauthorized form as early as 2007, which did much to spark latter-day interest in UAP outside of UFO enthusiast circles. In 2020, the U.S. Navy released the videos officially and confirmed that they were genuine without commenting on their content. The clips depict separate encounters between carrier-based F/A-18 Hornet fighters and unknown objects in 2004 and 2015. The videos were featured in a May 16 segment on “60 Minutes” about the impending UAP report to Congress.

Watch the Skies

The U.S. Senate requested that the DNI prepare the report as part of its intelligence authorization request for FY 2021. The incidents covered in the report occurred from March 2004 through March 2021 and are restricted to observations from military aviators. Intriguingly, the report says most of the reports have occurred in the last two years, although this may have more to do with the willingness of witnesses to report encounters than any increase in UAP activity. The agency says the effort is ongoing and future reports may be expected.

The timescale of the reporting for the preliminary assessment precludes analysis of some famous incidents, such as the Phoenix Lights of 1997 and the Hudson River Valley sightings in the 1980s. The intelligence report says the DOD task force set the conditions of its investigation to a period when reliable data from military sensors was available and procedures for reporting, collecting and analyzing data from UAP observations were becoming standardized between the military services and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Government personnel—and especially aviators—are now actively encouraged to report UAP encounters.

The intelligence report admits that “stigmas” attached to the topic have discouraged such reporting in the past. Indeed, the bad air surrounding the term “UFO” is likely one of the reasons the government is now using “UAP.” Going forward, the UAPTF expects to further coordinate reporting and analysis, particularly among the Navy, the Air Force and the FAA, while developing new analytical techniques to examine stored radar data and other sources.

Right now, the UAPTF is concerning itself with the aerial aspects of the phenomena. The DNI intelligence assessment clearly indicates that a significant number of reported encounters are with aerial objects that appear intelligently directed and that demonstrate technical prowess well in advance of what the U.S. currently fields or even understands.

Nothing conclusive on extraterrestrials… yet. Image Credit: 20th Century Fox/Wikimedia Commons

While the report doesn’t say so directly, the intelligence is either an earthly power that has stolen a march (or three) on the U.S. military, which is alarming. Or the intelligence comes from a source other than Earth. If the latter is the case, the UAP do not have to be interstellar spacecraft themselves to be of extraterrestrial origin. Despite the common UFO tropes, extraterrestrials need not have used faster-than-light travel (which may be impossible) to reach the Earth from another star system.

Scientists and engineers today can envision spacecraft that could travel interstellar distances over centuries or even decades. We just do not possess the technology or organizational skills to build them yet. Perhaps one or more of our neighbors do and have, at some time in the past, established themselves in our solar system or even somewhere hidden on Earth. Some UAP could be probes from such an intelligence that is much closer than we think.

The question then becomes, what do they want? And what is the exchange rate going to look like?

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