Government Report On UFOs Offers Limited Answers While Drawing The Public Spotlight

A long-awaited preliminary assessment from the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force was published yesterday by the Director of National Intelligence. The nine-page document was limited in detail, but appeared to be at odds with expectations that the report would eliminate U.S. classified programs as an explanation of some sightings. The underlying conclusion was one of uncertainty and a still-nascent effort to respond to the UAP issue.

The report defined “UAP” in an appendix as “airborne objects [that are] not immediately identifiable.” Given the broad definition, it is unsurprising that the analytic framework of the report focused on multiple possible explanations of UAP sightings. The report enumerated the following possibilities:

  • Airborne clutter: objects including birds, balloons, recreational drones or even plastic bags
  • Natural atmospheric weather phenomena like ice crystals or thermal fluctuations that can interfere with some sensor systems
  • Assets operated by U.S. entities
  • Foreign adversary systems
  • All other explanations

The analysis cited 144 reports, 80 of which involved observations based on multiple sensors. The number of reports with multiple sensor systems increased the UAPTF’s confidence that UAP often are “physical objects.” Of the 144 reports, the analysis only mentions one incident that was resolved; it was found to be a large balloon deflating.

In terms of defense equities, the report had very unclear conclusions. With respect to foreign adversary systems, the report claimed, “we currently lack data to indicate any UAP are part of a foreign collection program or indicative of a major technological advancement by a potential adversary.” In regard to U.S. assets, the report also conceded that “we were unable to confirm, however, that these systems accounted for any of the UAP reports we collected.” In fact, the report made no strong conclusions at all, with its apparent aim to promote further investigation and to seek greater resources.

The report emphasized the limitations of the available data, stating “there was wide variability in the reports and the dataset is currently too limited to allow for detailed trend or pattern analysis.” That said, the report did find there is “clustering” of UAP observations around “U.S. training and testing grounds” but cautioned that the pattern may be the result of a collection bias due to the greater number of advanced sensors operating in those areas. The War Zone recently reported nearly two dozen incidents like these recorded by the Federal Aviation Administration, clustered in conspicuous military hotspots off the East Coast and in the Southwest. The East Coast has been a particular nexus of activity dating back at least until 2013, prompting repeated safety concerns by Navy pilots.

There were several curious references in the document. Despite the limited data, the UAPTF claimed it was possible to perform some clustering of data around “shape, size, and particularly, propulsion.” It was unclear what kind of propulsion the report is referencing. Examples might include prop, rotor, lighter than air, jet or some unknown category. In areas like these, the report did not offer specifics.

Further, the authors of the report stated that 18 incidents described in 21 reports involved “unusual UAP movement patterns.” These unusual patterns are not described in detail, but are loosely characterized as involving abrupt maneuvering, remaining stationary against the wind, and moving at considerable speed without “discernible means of propulsion.” Earlier in the report, the UAPTF notes that observations of unusual flight characteristics “could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis.” The report itself again provides no details about the data underlying the 21 reports.

The UAPTF stated that a “small amount of data” supported UAP “demonstrating acceleration or a degree of signature management.” The reference to “signature management” likely refers to some aspect of stealth technology, traditionally having to do with reducing a craft’s radar, infrared, visual, and/or audible signature. However, the report also cautioned that additional analysis would be necessary, including by multiple teams or groups of technical experts. The report states: “we are conducting further analysis to determine if breakthrough technologies were demonstrated.”

Although much of the underlying data appears in doubt, the report asserts one strong conclusion: “UAP threaten flight safety and, possibly, national security.” The report again offered few details, but indicated that 11 incidents involved “near misses with a UAP.” Further, the report acknowledged that there could be a broader danger from espionage against military activities and facilities, or from a potential “breakthrough aerospace technology.”

The UAPTF emphasized the need to standardize and consolidate reporting of incidents in order to deepen the analysis. The report mentions the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to “cluster and recognize similarities and patterns.”

In terms of data, the report stated that the U.S. Navy has provided the majority of information to date. The United States Air Force, again somewhat absent from the conversation, has apparently begun a six-month pilot program as of November 2020 to collect information in the “most likely areas to encounter UAP.” It is unclear from the report where these areas are, or what intelligence the program is based on if the USAF has not been systematically tracking reports until recently. The Air Force has been notably tight-lipped on anything to do with the UAP issue, even though it is their mission to defend America’s sovereign airspace during peacetime, not the Navy’s. You can read more about this strange situation in this past piece of ours.

The FAA also featured prominently as both a collector and manager of data. Again, the UAPTF does not offer detail but mentions that it has “begun receiving data” from the FAA.

As might be expected, given the preliminary nature of the report and the lack of a firmly established center for UAP analysis, it concludes with a request for increased investment. Here, too, details are scarce. Little is mentioned beyond references to an intelligence collection strategy, technical roadmap and a program plan that were not included in the public report.

While the report makes several useful contributions to the public record, such as the number of cases evaluated, it does not offer much indication of a response in proportion to the larger problem.

For example, in March The War Zone reported on a dramatic series of events involving unidentified aircraft apparently harassing Navy vessels off the coast of Southern California. As part of our reporting, we persistently asked public affairs officials in the Navy as well as the Department of Defense three basic questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. What is being done about this?
  3. If something similar happened tomorrow, would the Navy and the Department of Defense be better prepared?

Those officials acknowledged our questions but never answered them.

Applying the same questions to the report is a sobering exercise. By and large, this report tells us that the UAPTF knows relatively little about what has happened in the past. In their words, the dataset is “too limited” to allow for detailed analysis. The UAPTF is similarly uncertain if breakthrough technologies have been observed. It doesn’t know if UAP belong to foreign competitors, and it cannot confirm if U.S. assets explain any of the reports. It has solved one case out of 144.

In terms of what is being done, the answer is an effort to better collect and organize data, including from the FAA. That said, we know from our coverage of incidents reported to the FAA that it does not retain records on many incidents beyond forty-five days. Further, the Naval Air Force Atlantic (AIRLANT), the Navy’s main aviation command on the East Coast, also told us it had no records on many recent incidents of interest.

Why? According to internal communication obtained via FOIA, “there are no current procedures in place to gather and maintain those records on file.” They further stated that “there are no procedures/requirements in place to maintain that data for more than 1 year unless an incident resulting in a hazrep [hazard report] was involved.”

In short, both the Navy and the FAA continue to have short institutional and archival memories, despite repeated claims that the military is amending and improving its reporting practices. Still, with an increased focus on this problem, there is some hope that will change.

Strikingly, the report makes no mention of what should be done about the UAPs that it concedes could potentially be a national security threat. The report offers no potential physical solutions to a problem that, at the very least, somewhat routinely threatens aviation safety. Even in a world where the FAA and the DOD collect better data, presumably pilots and U.S. facilities will be at the same risk until something is done to actually identify and stop aircraft from being where they should not be.

In short, we still don’t know much about what has been happening. There are attempts to gather better information, but details are anything but clear. There is nothing planned in the report that will decrease the possibility of a midair collision or of sensitive intelligence collection on a U.S. facility.

It is difficult to fault the UAPTF itself too strongly for these problems. By many accounts, the entire task force consists of less than three people at any given time. Clearly, the task force did not have extensive access to classified programs, leading to their inability to rule them out in any particular case. Additionally, we have little idea what access the task force had to the best analytical capabilities in the threat intelligence community. The inconclusive nature of the report suggests that access was limited.

It is unsurprising that the issue has attracted the attention of the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. It is prudent to ask if it makes sense to entrust questions of breakthrough technology, espionage, or potentially lethal and recurrent issues of aviation safety to three people with limited access to classification information.

To be sure, there are several major positive aspects of the report. Despite its lack of detail, it does establish that there are significant defense and safety equities involved in this problem. The clear statement of the problem stands in stark contrast to the lack of data or a larger plan to address that problem. That gap should be an impetus for lawmakers and the Department of Defense to act more decisively. Encouragingly, the Department of Defense has already announced plans to formalize the mission of the UAPTF and enhance its access to information. You can see the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s memo, which was published shortly after the UAP report went public, below:


The statements of the two chairs of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have underscored the need to find out more, and to take the issue seriously, as well. Other lawmakers have seemed to of reacted positively to report, as well.

These are very early indicators of what will hopefully be an increasingly sophisticated response to the problem. This should not be taken for granted, and clearly, the UAPTF process has served a function as a focusing mechanism, if nothing else. It has been easy to discount reports of unidentified aircraft as ghost stories. Given the evolution of technology over time, the skies have become more complex due to the proliferation of advanced drone and balloon technologies, as well as a number of other maturing capabilities. Recent stories we have covered involving unidentified aircraft paint a sobering picture.

For example, they involve multiple aircraft hovering over Navy warships. They involve aircraft orbiting active nuclear reactors with spotlights. They involve aircraft coming within 15 feet of an F-35. They involve apparent reconnaissance of strategic anti-missile batteries. Other stories continue to develop, and known incidents now number in the dozens.

One enduring problem is the circus-like atmosphere that still pervades the issue, with decades of attendant baggage. It is difficult to avoid, given that “UAP” is used widely by the media, the public and even some former defense officials to connote extraterrestrials. This tendency still stands in the way of clear-sighted evaluation of the facts. Few of the countless articles written on the topic have tackled the details of the defense and intelligence issues — despite the report being jointly prepared by the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — the focus has largely alluded to aliens, instead.

UAP, as the UAPTF points out, are likely many things. They do not have a single explanation, something we have stressed heavily in the past. One thing is sure: these incidents are a test of our collective maturity and intelligence. It is easy to lapse into facile debate and speculation about aliens. While we debate, warships and nuclear reactors receive unwelcome visits from unidentified aircraft, and pilots continue to have harrowing encounters with them.

Our three unanswered questions remain pressing: what happened? What is being done? Are we better prepared if it happens again? While the preliminary report does not fully address these questions, it offers some hope that lawmakers may begin asking them more forcefully.

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