After a great deal of speculation, the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have released a long-awaited report about their investigations into unidentified flying objects. The unclassified document, called “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” examined 144 incidents that occurred between November 2004 and March 2021 in which military pilots encountered something they couldn’t explain. Promoters of the idea that UFOs represent something beyond this world have been hyping up the release for months.
In only one case was the report able to deduce an exact nature of what their pilots saw with high confidence—it was a large, deflating balloon. It also concludes that further investigation of the other incidents would likely trace them back to some terrestrial cause, such as airborne debris, natural atmospheric phenomena like ice crystals, or flight vehicles from the US or other countries. But by their very nature, most of the reported cases are difficult to identify.
“The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP,” wrote the authors, using the military’s preferred parlance.
Today’s report follows in the wake of knowledge about a $22 million program known as the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, set up in 2007, whose existence was made public in a front page story in The New York Times in 2017. Though it contains no indication that any of its incidents could have been caused by things not of this Earth, it will be seen as a major victory by those who have been pushing for increased government disclosures about strange lights in the skies.
“No question, this is the story of the millennium,” says former CIA officer Jim Semivan, who helps run To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences, a company that researches UFOs and other unexplained phenomena. “This is going to reorder our consensus reality.”
His partner at To the Stars, Tom DeLonge (yes, from the punk-pop band Blink-182), agrees. “There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle,” DeLonge says.
Susan Gough, a spokesperson for the Defense Department, declined requests for an interview, writing in an email that the department “does not discuss publicly the details of either the observations or the examination of reported incursions into our training ranges or designated airspace.”
The new report is less a major turning point in our understanding of life in the universe and more a product of our current cultural climate, a time when expertise and authority are increasingly being called into question. The debate over UFOs instead highlights the limits of knowledge and humanity’s continued need to believe in something beyond our mundane experience of the world.
It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time the government has acknowledged that its pilots on occasion see things that bewilder them. “The US military has done this before, in multiple ways, at multiple times,” says Kathryn Dorsch, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Last summer, for instance, the Department of Defense authorized the release of three videos showing purported encounters with unidentified phenomena, which featured oblong dots hovering and moving in eerie ways. In April, the Pentagon also confirmed that leaked video of a bizarre triangular object taken in 2019 was a legitimate recording of something it had yet to explain.
Dorsch, who specializes in scientific knowledge production, points out that UFOs are very much a Cold War phenomenon. Almost as soon as World War II ended, US military officials began reporting observations of funny lights and odd-shaped entities.
It was perfectly reasonable for the Department of Defense to be concerned that these represented some kind of advanced Soviet technology, and so the Air Force launched Project Sign and Project Grudge in 1947 and 1948, respectively, to study UFO sightings among its soldiers. The longest such investigation, Project Blue Book, ran from 1952 to 1969 and ended with the public release of the Condon Report, which concluded that the study of UFOs was unlikely to yield much of interest.
Each of these documents has stated that the vast majority of these sightings can be traced back to some common object—a bird, plane, or planet, Dorsch says. But a certain slim percentage of encounters have always remained unidentified, and the military has vowed to keep investigating them. True believers hold up these unknowns as potential evidence of visitors from somewhere else.
“The chances of this technology being Russian or Chinese is infinitesimally small,” says Semivan, speaking about the objects captured in the Navy videos released in recent years. “These things have been flying around since the '40s, and the Russians would have won the Cold War if they had this technology back then.”
The way he and DeLonge see it, there are really only three options that can account for what people have been spotting over the years: the extraterrestrial, the interdimensional, and the ultra-terrestrial, meaning members of a lost human civilization here on Earth, à la Atlantis.
“Either there’s a group so much more advanced that we never knew they were here,” DeLonge says, “or they’re popping in and out of what we can perceive, and using machinery to do that.”
But before rushing off into such flights of fancy, it might be good to consider that another group of sky watchers, astronomers, rarely report seeing unidentified aerial phenomena. “No one would be happier than astronomers if UFOs turned out to be alien spacecraft,” says Andrew Fraknoi, a retired astronomer and member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which promotes critical investigation of extraordinary claims. “Imagine getting to talk about astronomy with creatures that traveled through the stars.”
When giving public talks, Fraknoi likes to play with his audience by telling them he believes in UFOs. “I believe there are objects out there the average person can’t identify,” he clarifies. “The issue is: Can we make a UFO into an IFO, an identified flying object?”
In his opinion, it’s quite possible that extraterrestrial beings exist, perhaps even intelligent ones. Plenty of researchers hope to use probes to investigate potentially habitable places in our solar system like Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa, or catch a whiff of a strange gas on a distant planet that might indicate it is a living world, as in the recent controversial paper about the possibility of phosphine on Venus.
As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Fraknoi also thinks our observatories may one day accidentally eavesdrop on an alien transmission. But each of these scenarios is a far cry from the idea that we are being visited by little green individuals.
The current craze over UFOs is in many ways traceable back to To the Stars. In 2017 the group, along with The New York Times, released the mysterious US Navy videos that purported to capture freaky aerial objects, helping to prompt official confirmation from the US military that these videos were real. While a number of people have attempted to debunk such footage, other high-profile publications, including The New Yorker, subsequently published credulous alien articles, leading members of Congress to include in their December 2020 omnibus spending and coronavirus-relief legislation a provision ordering the Defense Department to deliver a UFO report within six months.
The Cold War may be gone, but the US is still on-again, off-again frenemies with Russia, as well as its new main competitor on the world stage, China. Furthermore, we are living in an era when expert judgement is constantly being called into question—whether in regards to climate change, vaccines, or the fact that the Earth is a sphere. “I think the political moment is particularly ripe for this,” says Dorsch. She sees parallels to the release of the Condon Report, which landed with a thud in 1969 in part because trust in government was at a low ebb over the Vietnam War.
Though she doesn’t think that alien-piloted UFOs are particularly likely, she adds that the experiences of people who’ve reported unexplained sightings shouldn’t be automatically dismissed. “I think it can give you a language for humanizing people who don’t necessarily agree with you,” she says. “They’re not making it up for fun. They believe. Not only should we not be surprised that this is happening, we should expect it.”
Nothing is infallible—not trained pilots, not advanced military cameras, not government reports. Radar can be tricked by pockets of warm air. Human beings see things they can’t explain. Sometimes investigations can determine a cause, and sometimes they can’t.
“God love the US Air Force, but answering fundamental epistemological questions is not super high on their to-do list,” says Dorsch. “This is why the military has always struggled with this UFO question. They want to know if this thing is a threat, and if it’s not, great.”
Ultimately, no report is going to do much to move the needle for either side. What any given person thinks about UFOs comes down to their personal cosmology and the underlying truths they see in the world. As Fraknoi noted, the belief in alien visitors mirrors people’s faith in other kinds of spiritual protectors, like guardian angels.
“A lot of these UFO reports are people wishing we had alien godparents that we could consult about our problems,” he says. “For the most part, I think we have to solve our own problems.”
Update 6-3-2021 10:20 AM: This story was updated to attribute the $22 million figure to the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, and to clarify that the report has not yet concluded the causes of all 144 reported incidents.