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The US military can’t explain all the weird things its pilots see in the sky

Scott Bray, a US intelligence official, discusses a video of an unidentified aerial phenomena.
Reuters/Joey Roulette
Scott Bray, a US intelligence official, discusses a video of an unidentified aerial phenomena.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

The US military’s investigation into unexplained aerial sightings continues without major revelations, two officials said at a public hearing today, but they urged pilots to report the weird things they may see without fear of stigma.

After videos and accounts of unidentified aerial phenomena observed by US military pilots were reported by the New York Times in 2017, lawmakers instructed the Department of Defense to analyze and investigate reports of that nature, and develop policies for rigorous reporting of new incidents involving Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAPs.

Today’s hearing was the first public testimony on the military’s progress investigating the issue, which lawmakers said is moving too slowly. Last year, the DOD released a preliminary report (pdf) outlining its efforts to examine the events.

“UAPs need to be understood as a national security matter,” rep. Adam Schiff said at the hearing. These incidents, after all, could affect the safety of air travel or be evidence of advance military technologies developed by rival states, if they aren’t sensor errors, weather phenomena or simply airborne clutter. However, many people urging this investigation believe that the UAPs are connected to extra-terrestrial life, which may be one reason pilots are reluctant to report strange activity.

“We have no material to suggest it’s anything non-terrestrial in origin,” Scott Bray, the deputy director of Naval Intelligence, one of the agencies involved with the investigation, said. Most space scientists agree, calling for a more reasoned assessment of what is being seen.

“Much of what is out in the public regarding amateur UAP research is self-serving,” the undersecretary for defense and intelligence, Ronald Moultrie, said at the hearing, likely referring to groups like To The Stars, a company founded to promote investigations of UAP by a group including former Blink-182 front man Tom Delonge.

The truth is we don’t have enough data

Still, without people who believe the government is hiding something, like whistleblowing former intelligence official Luis Elizondo, the public would not be aware of the 144 documented UAP sightings, or the late senator Harry Reid’s push for an investigation operated by his campaign donor, and UFO enthusiast, Bob Bigelow.

However, independent analysts remain agnostic about these incidents, or say there are reasonable explanations. At the hearing, a video of glowing triangular shapes in the sky was attributed to video artifacts created when filming the sky with a digital camera through a pair of night vision goggles. However, the tic-tac shaped object observed maneuvering in the sky by pilots flying from the USS Nimitz remains unexplained, the officials said.

The biggest problem, they say, is a lack of data. Even incidents detected by multiple witnesses or sensors may only offer a brief period of observation gathered at high speed at a long distance. The officials also said that their new organization, the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, was sharing data with some US allies who are investigating UAPs, and that China has set up its own task force to probe such incidents.

“The message is clear: if you see something you need to report it,” Bray said, noting that one naval aviator called him shortly after landing to describe an encounter. Bray said that 400 new reports had been made since last year’s preliminary assessment.

What is still classified?

Lawmakers also received a classified briefing from the same two officials , which may contain more detail about what exactly is going on. Still, the officials suggested that these incidents likely didn’t reflect classified US government vehicle development programs.

Another challenge, according to Moultrie, is protecting sources of US knowledge. Sensors that could add valuable information to the UAP debate need to be hidden from adversaries, as do potential intelligence sources about foreign weapons development programs. In one example, the US military only recently confirmed that missile-warning satellites collected information to suggest a 2014 meteoroid came from beyond our galaxy.

One anonymous official involved with the effort told Politico ahead the hearing that it would not reveal anything, saying that “these people exist and they are protecting very interesting information,” without explaining what it could be.

In a world where evidence of US war crimes, US espionage against an allied head of state, and the private conversations of the US president have all been leaked, it seems whatever the government knows about the UAPs hasn’t struck anyone as important enough to risk their career by revealing it.

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