In December 2019 and January 2020, the plains of rural northeastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska were the epicenter of a series of sightings of what were widely described as unidentified drones. Despite the media attention these sightings received and the speculation that they were related to the security forces responsible for protecting intercontinental ballistic missile silos scattered throughout the region, military bases in the area denied that the drones were theirs. While the mystery of the drones’ operator or operators remains unsolved, a series of internal emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal just how serious the drone reports were taken by the 90th Security Forces Group and the public affairs office at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. The emails are heavily redacted, but they at least shed some light on the confusion even the base experienced at the hands of this seemingly unsolved mystery.
In late December 2019, The War Zone was among the first outlets to report on the somewhat bizarre story of fleets of unidentified drones operating in the airspace above northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska. There was a sense of near-panic as law enforcement agencies were inundated with scores of reports of these drones, prompting the creation of a task force that included the FAA, federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, and sheriffs from multiple Colorado counties. Eventually, the State of Colorado sent one of its well-equipped surveillance planes to hunt for the drones. Since then, however, reports of suspicious drone activity have dropped significantly, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety and Nebraska State Patrol.
Despite the large effort and the mobilization of Colorado's infrared camera-equipped aircraft, nothing conclusive was identified and, to date, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the drone activities. That doesn’t mean that the case is closed, however.
Douglas D. Johnson, a volunteer researcher operating in affiliation with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), recently obtained emails through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which catalog the internal communications of the public affairs office at F.E. Warren and the 90th Security Forces Group regarding the spate of drone sightings. The 90th Security Forces Group provides security both for F.E. Warren and the 150 Minuteman III Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) operated by the 90th Missile Wing.
The heavily redacted emails can be read in their entirety here.
Johnson filed two separate FOIA requests for all official correspondence to and from Jon Carkhuff, a public affairs officer and/or spokesman associated with F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and all official correspondence to and from the headquarters staff of the 90th Security Forces Group that contain any of the following terms: drone, drones, counter-drone, counter-drones, unmanned aerial system, unmanned aerial systems, UAS, counter-UAS, unidentified aircraft, unidentified aerial, unidentified flying, unknown aircraft, UFO, and anomalous. The FOIA requests were for communications ranging from December 15, 2019, through January 18, 2020. The requests were filed on January 18, 2020, and were fulfilled on February 14.
Many parts of the communications Johnson received are redacted, including the names of the participants in the email chains in which the mystery drones and the base's response to media inquiries about them are discussed. In an exchange about how to respond to an early media inquiry, an unknown sender writes "We need to ensure he doesn't feel like we are hiding anything." On the next page in the same release, after a statement "we do not know the origin of the drones," one writer inserts the hashtag "#aliens."
As the FOIA documents show, public affairs staff at F.E. Warren would eventually release an official press statement on January 17 after receiving input from Major General Ferdinand 'Fred' B. Stoss III, commander of 20th Air Force, the part of Air Force Global Strike Command responsible for overseeing the entire ICBM force. The final version of the statement that was released states definitively that F.E. Warren was not responsible for the drones:
We can confirm that the drones spotted in Colorado and Nebraska are not from F.E. Warren Air Force Base and are not affiliated in any way with the United States Air Force. We have provided this information to the FAA, FBI, and state and local authorities, as they investigate this matter.
The drones have not posed a threat to any of our sites, facilities or operations.
F.E. Warren AFB does conduct counter-UAS training within the confines of the installation, however, any drones spotted outside of the installation are not part of our fleet.
Aside from discussions and drafts pertaining to the production of that official statement, the FOIA releases contain entire emails that are redacted and seem to have once contained nothing but images of drones taken by eyewitnesses. The only images not redacted are a series taken by a Nebraska State Trooper.
Still, despite being heavily censored, the emails reveal that many at F.E. Warren were just as confused by the mystery drones as the public was.
Questions And Confusion Surrounding Drone Sightings
In one email contained in the F.E. Warren public affairs office FOIA release, the palpable confusion of staff can be detected in the fact that there seems to be no agreement on who might be responsible for the drone sightings. “[Redacted] — understand you’re part of the FBI TF [task force] looking at this? Pls send me an update,” the email reads. “This is becoming a bigger deal. What’s our PA [public affairs] play here right now WRT [with regards to] this (ongoing drone) effort?”
In another email sent on January 2, 2020, an unknown sender notes the bewilderment the region experienced at the height of the drone panic:
Northeastern Colorado is in a tizzy about drone sightings. They all seem clustered in an area that has quite a few Minuteman sites. Do you know if security forces is playing with UASs [unmanned aircraft systems] up there?
An email within the 90th Security Forces Group FOIA release dated January 8, 2020 states that the drones are “100000000000% not us.” “I’ve seen some articles pointing the finger as us [sic],” the sender writes, “but I can definitely say this is not our team.”
Even the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) got involved with the drone mystery. AFOSI is military law enforcement and investigative agency that reports directly to the Secretary of the Air Force whose stated mission is to “identify, exploit and neutralize criminal, terrorist, and intelligence threats in multiple domains to the Air Force, Department of Defense and U.S. Government.” Its stated capabilities are to detect threats, conduct investigations, and “protect secrets.”
A 90th Security Forces Group email dated January 6, 2020, adds that the sender will “defer to [Redacted] on this one since AFOSI is the lead agency on the FEW [F.E. Warren AFB] side for this issue.” In a separate email within the FOIA release from the public affairs office at F.E. Warren, it is written that the AFOSI would send a representative to the closed-door task force meeting held on Jan. 6 in Brush, Colorado.
Several of the emails in the 90th Security Forces Group FOIA release mention AF/A10, the office of the U.S. Air Force Air Staff that oversees Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. “AF/A10 reached down asked for confirmation that we (AFSGC) [Air Force Global Strike Command] are not flying the drones in question,” one email reads.
In one of the stranger exchanges found in the 90th Security Forces Group release, a participant in the email chain writes that some eyewitness reports state that the drones were dropping what appeared to be “potatoes” and that the Perkins County Sheriff's Office collected some of them for analysis:
Sheriff’s deputies are responding and seeing the drones as well. They reported seeing a “mothership” 6’ in diameter flanked by 10 smaller drones (some fixed wing, some not). When deputies follow the drones, they clock them at speeds of 60-70 mph. The drones also appear to be dropping or picking up things that look like “potatoes” [Redacted]
The FBI in Colorado and the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in Omaha are currently looking into the sightings. Perkins County Sherriff’s [sic] Office has three of the potatoes frozen in storage and will likely transfer them to the FBI for analysis. The FAA is sending an agent to Colorado this upcoming weekend to help investigate and handle the news coverage.
In an email dated January 2, someone else in the email chain added that “The “potatoes” have an agricultural purpose and are used by farmers with their large center pivot irrigation systems.” The Denver Post identified the "potatoes" as SOILPAM Tracklogs, a tool used to help fill the ruts left by wheels on large irrigation systems.
The War Zone reached out to both the Perkins County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI office in Denver for comment on these “potatoes." The Perkins County Sheriff's Office declined to comment, while the FBI issued the following statement:
The FBI’s media policy prohibits confirming or denying an investigation unless in rare circumstances when publicity would help the investigation, such as in seeking a missing child or trying to identify a bank robber. The matter you’re inquiring about does not meet that exception, so it would not be appropriate to provide any details.
Counter-UAS Operations At F.E. Warren And Minuteman Sites
Throughout the email chains of both the 90th Security Forces Group and the F.E. Warren AFB public affairs office, there is significant discussion regarding counter-UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operations.
In an email dated Jan. 2, 2020, it is noted that the 90th Security Forces Group does indeed have a section dedicated to UAS operations and that “we have some for testing and training throughout the command." The sender notes that “We can reach out to them to see if there are any concerns.”
In a heavily redacted email dated Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, with the subject line “Autonomous Base Defense System”, the sender discusses a capabilities demonstration (“capes demo”) at an unknown facility:
Good morning sir,
Since this capes demo they have continued to develop and field their systems. To that end, they just successfully completed a very high visibility demonstration at [Redacted] that is continuing to drive interest and deployment of the system [Redacted] as well as a one-month long combat validation deployment to [Redacted] that was so successful they are now deploying four additional systems in country on a permanent basis.
The [Redacted] proposed Jan 15th to come to FEW [F.E. Warren] and provide a brief and answer any questions. I will work with your front office to get it on your calendar.
On January 10, another message states that engineers from an unknown organization would be on base on Jan. 17 to lead a briefing on an unspecified autonomous base defense system:
The lead engineer for [Redacted] will be briefing [Redacted] on Jan 17th @ 1030 in the Wing Conference Room on their autonomous base defense system and associated systems.
The C-UAS section hit me up and said they were attending which is awesome however, this is less about actual blue force sUAS development and more about the system used to detect, track, classify, and identify the threat. [Redacted]
Three days later, on January 13, another email “hot on the heels of the info [Redacted] distro’d…” includes a link to an October 2019 Defender Magazine article describing how Buckley Air Force Base outside of Denver, Colorado became the first Air Force Base in the continental United States to declare an operational anti-drone capability. The email then continues “He mentioned [Redacted] was one of the locations that was implementing the Det 24 C-sUAS capes. Interesting timing.”
In the F.E. Warren public affairs FOIA release, an email dated January 2 mentions specifically a “Dedrone contract.” Dedrone is a manufacturer of counter-drone technology platforms featuring an open systems architecture, which “seamlessly integrates with a variety of sensing and threat mitigation technologies, enabling users to customize their platform and meet their specific needs and threat level." Dedrone designs and manufactures radiofrequency sensors, radar systems, PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras, and the DroneDefender, a rifle-like directed energy weapon designed to disable small drones.
In a Dedrone press release dated August 28, 2019, the company wrote that F.E. Warren was among six Department of Defense facilities chosen to test the Dedrone platform in June of 2018 as part of a Defense Innovation Unit, and “has been continuously testing, evaluating and using the capability for over a year.” According to solicitation documents, the contract was worth $27.5 million.
However, the Single Source Justification documents for the contract notes that F.E. Warren uses an undisclosed number of other counter-sUAS systems and that “listing the other C-sUAS systems at F. E. Warren and their capabilities, or lack thereof, is classified SECRET//NOFORN.” The document adds that “no other system possesses similar capability” as the Dedrone system.
In the F.E. Warren public affairs release, an email cited above dated Jan. 2, 2020 with a timestamp of 1:42 PM and the subject line “[Non-DoD Source] Quick question”, the author asks “Do you know if security forces is playing with UASs up there?”
Another email sent at 3:54 PM that day with the subject line “Re: [Non-DoD Source] Quick question” states simply “I believe this is the Dedrone contract.” Since the senders and recipients for both emails are redacted, it’s impossible to ascertain conclusively if these two emails were a direct back-and-forth exchange, although the subject lines and timestamps seem to suggest they were likely related. We also have no idea what level of knowledge the recipient had about the system or its operations at the time. This exchange very well could have been merely an off-hand comment that had yet to be confirmed at the time.
An earlier version of the base's aforementioned official statement on the drone mystery which didn't make the final cut contained the following text:
The Air Force does have the ability to counter unmanned aerial systems to include non-kinetic options ranging in size from handheld technology to larger stationary and mobile systems that can be operated on the ground or in the air. Kinetic options to defeat UASs have also been fielded and deployed to Air Force Global Strike installations.
F.E. Warren AFB does conduct UAS and counter-UAS operations, however, the drones spotted in Nebraska and Colorado are not part of our fleet.
For operational security reasons, additional details about UAS operations or measures to counter hostile use of commercial off-the-shelf UASs are not releasable.
Another part of the Email chain explains why certain parts were cut from the final press release:
"[Redacted] wanted to scrub the third and fifth paragraphs. The third paragraph isn’t really relevant because no one is questioning our ability to counter UAS or what SOPs [standard operating procedures] we have in place to protect our assets from UAS. The main question is who those drones belong to. As far as the fifth paragraph, unless the reporters are asking about the measures in place to counter hostile use of UASs, we don’t see the value in adding that.
That was his suggestion. Please let me know if you would like to discuss further. I can also run this by our JAG [Judge Advocate General] real quick and have it ready by COB [close of business]."
In the last of the emails contained within the 90th Security Forces Group FOIA release, dated Jan. 16, the author mentions that some sightings could be due to what sound like Starlink satellites:
Sir, BLUF [Bottom Line Up Front]: We have a high degree of confidence that the on-base visual phenomenon was not sUAS [small Unmanned Aircraft Systems] activity; it is likely this was a result of the [Redacted].
BACKGROUND: [Redacted]. It uses passive, library based RF detection capability in order to locate sUAS activity. It has a very high degree of accuracy and we have tested it extensively since June 2018. We receive regular hits of sUAS activity (daily) but nothing that is on the installation or over our specific area of interest.
DISCUSSION: [Redacted] did detect some activity in the area but nothing near the installation (at least 3km away). These detections were not out of the ordinary. After reviewing the photography and doing some quick research, the pictures are consistent with [Redacted] satellites. The last launch was 6 Jan 2020 which contained 60 satellites. These satellites are visible by the naked eye as they trust [sic] to their parking orbit altitude of 550km which usually takes a few weeks; they look like a string of lights in the night sky. Based on hobbist satellite tracking website, a string of [Redacted] satellites were in the area last night.
Starlink did, in fact, launch a Falcon 9 rocket containing 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 6, 2020. However, it's difficult to believe that so many people, including law enforcement officers, could mistake strings of Starlink or other small satellites in orbit for low-altitude drones moving dynamically across the area.
Still No Consensus On The Mystery Drones
Despite the fact that these emails are heavily redacted and don’t conclusively solve the mystery surrounding the wave of drone sightings in Colorado and Nebraska, these FOIA releases show just how seriously these sightings were taken by officials and security forces at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. They also show that shortly after the drone sightings began, a C-sUAS briefing was given at F.E. Warren. It is unknown if that briefing was related in any way to the mystery drone developments.
It's important to note, too, that these emails are only a snapshot of what was happening behind the scenes at F.E. Warren. There may be and likely are many missing pieces beyond what is in these redacted emails. In-person meetings, briefings, and phone communications were all likely part of the base's response to the drone mystery.
The claims that the drone sightings were merely a mass delusion clearly seem to not be the case given the response by officials at F.E. Warren AFB and the reports they cite. The sightings were taken seriously enough that military institutions and federal agencies such as NORAD, USNORTHCOM, MAJCOM, AFOSI, the FBI, DHS, the USAF Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Directorate, and the FAA were involved in investigating the sightings. "As you can imagine this activity has gained the attention of our Commander here at NORAD and USNORTHCOM," one 90th Security Forces Group email from January 7 reads. "We are fully engaged as well with our FBI and DHS representatives here."
Furthermore, had the sightings been merely a case of mistaken identity and perhaps public paranoia, then why would F.E. Warren so heavily redact images of suspected drones in this FOIA release?
Of course, any time a spate of strange or unidentified object sightings in the skies occurs, it’s inevitable that curious would-be eyewitnesses misidentify objects due to confirmation bias. It’s likely that many of the alleged drone sightings were misidentified due to exactly this. Still, these FOIA releases and the level of redaction seem to suggest that at least some of sightings may have legitimately been due to some type of aircraft operating in the area that the Air Force isn't comfortable disclosing any details about.
From mysterious 'potatoes' of interest to sheriffs making detailed reports of drone swarms to redacted images of aircraft, we are left with more questions than ever. But at least it seems the Air Force was just as puzzled as we were with these bizarre events...
Even if just for a little while.
Thanks to Douglas D. Johnson and the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU) for providing The War Zone with these documents. Johnson is currently pursuing an appeal for certain redactions in the communications that were submitted as part of these FOIA releases, including the censored images.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com