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The recent ODNI report on unidentified aerial phenomena has revealed objects exhibiting behaviour that the US government is currently unable to explain. What are some potential explanations for these objects and do they pose a threat to national security?

Ethan Susser, 13 December 2021

In 2021 the ODNI (US Office of the Director of National Intelligence) released a report on UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) which for the most part is quite mundane, focusing on the need for additional funding owing to lack of radar coverage over US airspace which makes it difficult to identify UAP. The most interesting part of the report is certainly the admission that in 18 recorded cases UAP exhibited unusual movement patterns such as remaining stationary mid-air, moving rapidly, and changing direction abruptly. Some of these objects were even found to emit radio signals, which has been a cause for some concern, with the report stating that more rigorous analysis is required to determine if breakthrough technologies were demonstrated.

These incidents were also heavily focused around US military installations, although the report notes that this could be a case of selection bias as there is significantly better radar coverage around military installations than elsewhere. This could indicate technological advancement by an adversarial power, sensor errors, or something else entirely–at this point there is insufficient evidence to say for sure. Owing to the lack of certainty regarding these incidents, there are three primary explanations proposed by those interested in these events: technological advancements by adversarial powers, radar or sensor errors, and extraterrestrial visitation.

Out of these categories, the one given the most weight by the report seems to be the foreign adversary systems category. This should be no real cause for alarm as the most likely explanation for these systems is simply for espionage purposes. Spying on adversaries during peacetime is commonplace as states like to have the best possible intelligence on the military capabilities of potential enemies. The US itself openly conducts regular surveillance over the South China Sea and is likely to use, and historically has used, aircraft to gain intelligence on foreign military capabilities. However, while the existence of espionage aircraft over US military installations is to be expected to a certain extent, it is the technology exhibited by these objects that could be a cause for some concern.

The report freely admits that it is unable to explain the movement of these objects, which means that if the UAP in question are from an adversarial state, then that state has access to technology superior to existing US military technology, which the report terms as “breakthrough technologies”. If this is the case it would give whichever adversarial power that has access to these technologies an advantage over the US in any aerial confrontation and in espionage operations, which would certainly constitute a threat to US national security.

The most romantic of these categories is the extraterrestrial one. Ufologists, including Ross Coulthart in his book “In Plain Sight”, argue that these displays of advanced technological capabilities are evidence of the presence of extraterrestrials in Earth’s airspace. Indeed, the report’s description of the UAP exhibiting signs of “breakthrough technology” do seem to coincide with accounts of those who have claimed to witness extraterrestrial vessels. Many of these observations are from pilots, with both the ODNI report and witnesses expressing confusion over the maneuverability of the objects. These UAP are reported to have the capability of moving extremely quickly or hovering in place while exhibiting high levels of maneuverability which, if it is the case, exceed the known technological capabilities of the US air force, which is the best funded and thought to be the most advanced air force currently in existence. The Pentagon itself has stated that it has not ruled out the possibility that the objects are of extra-terrestrial origin. While this certainly merits further examination it is far from conclusive evidence of an extra-terrestrial presence near Earth.

The ODNI report identifies a strong sociocultural stigma around reporting sightings of UAP among pilots because of the association of UAP with extraterrestrial life. Many pilots who observe UAP are hesitant to report these sightings because they fear being labeled crazy, causing many to ignore these phenomena entirely, which has hindered efforts to collect data on these objects. This is supported by Coulthart’s claims based on his off-the-record conversations with high-ranking members of the Australian air force who have refused to report what they describe as similar sightings, fearing damage to their careers. This stigma must be addressed in order to collect additional data which could be useful in decisively identifying these objects.

There is also a possibility that these phenomena, which are difficult to explain, are at least in part the result of sensor errors. The ODNI report freely admits that its radar network suffers from “sensor limitations” which hinder the accurate identification of UAP. The report also states that many of its sensors are highly specialized to meet the operational needs of whichever installation they are attached to, which makes them unsuitable for the identification of UAP. This however cannot be considered a complete explanation, as the ODNI report indicates that at least some of the unusual behavior was observed directly by pilots or air crews, in some cases from multiple angles, precluding the possibility that sensor errors producing faulty readings can be wholly responsible for the more unusual UAP incidents. While strange behaviour from UAP is unlikely to be the result of sensor errors, additional investments in radar and sensor capabilities will be necessary to identify UAP more accurately and to improve sensor coverage which is currently highly concentrated in areas with high levels of air traffic, or around military installations.

The Department of Defense is clearly beginning to take UAP more seriously, as on 23 November 2021, it announced the formation of the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG), a task force with the purpose of investigating UAP in restricted airspace, recommending policy changes as needed, and creating strategies to mitigate any potential threat to national security caused by these objects. The AOIMSG will be a cooperative effort spanning all branches of the US military along with other government agencies. This is a major development in the effort to identify UAP as previously only the US Navy had a program dedicated to the identification of these phenomena.

Regardless of the explanation for these objects, additional investment into sensor capabilities and experts are necessary to obtain more decisive data on UAP. While knowledge of objects over US airspace is likely a worthwhile investment, many argue that US military spending is already excessive, with a current annual budget of USD 778 billion, more than the next 11 countries’ annual military budgets combined. At the same time, social services are severely underfunded in the US, a trend which has been exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic. Coupled with the lack of harm attributed to UAP, this may lead many to wonder why this is a more urgent area of investment than social and medical services which would have an immediate positive impact on the American public.

Picture: STAR WARS: The Rise of Skywalker, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IX), Millennium Falcon, 2019. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Lucasfilm. © IMAGO / Everett Collection
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