Encounters with small unidentified "objects," sometimes in swarm-like groups of as many as eight. Sightings of other objects, including some characterized as drones, flying at altitudes up to 36,000 feet and as fast as Mach 0.75. Another apparent small drone actually hitting the canopy of an F-16 Viper causing damage. These incidents and many more, all occurred in or around various military air combat training ranges in Arizona since January 2020.
The events are described in reports from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) filed over roughly a three-year period. Overall, the data points to what are often categorized as drones, but many of which are actually unidentified objects, as well as what do appear to be drones, or uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), intruding into these restricted warning areas with alarming regularity.
Marc Cecotti, a contributor to The War Zone, has been able to obtain additional partially redacted reports about a number of these incidents from the U.S. Air Force's Safety Center via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that provide additional insights. Cecotti, together with Adam Kehoe, another one of our contributors, had first begun to notice a clustering of reports of unusual aerial encounters in southwestern Arizona back in 2021. An interactive online tool they created for The War Zone that leverages the FAA's public database of drone-related incident reports helped highlight that trend.
Arizona Is Host To Major Air Combat Training Areas
When it comes to the Air Force, Arizona is home to Luke Air Force Base and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Luke has long been a major training hub for U.S. Air Force and foreign F-35 and F-16 pilots, though its work with the F-16 has been steadily diminishing in recent years. Davis-Monthan currently hosts units flying a variety of aircraft, including A-10 Warthog ground attack jets and EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare planes, as well as the unit that oversees the U.S. military's famous boneyard that is part of the sprawling installation.
Units of the Arizona Air National Guard also operate from various bases in the southern end of the state. This includes Morris Air National Guard Base, which is collocated with Tucson International Airport in the city of the same name and that also hosts the Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Command Test Center.
Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, a major test and training base for that service that hosts multiple F-35 squadrons, as well as units flying various other aircraft, is some 140 miles southwest of Luke.
Arizona has a number of major training ranges with restricted airspace, including significant areas adjacent to Luke AFB and MCAS Yuma. In fact, a large swathe of Arizona's border with Mexico sits under these ranges, including the Barry M. Goldwater range. There are a number of other designated Military Operating Areas (MOA), which can readily, if temporarily be closed off for training, elsewhere in the state. Restricted airspace and MOAs are all included in what the FAA more broadly refers to as Special Use Airspace (SUA).
The reports of unidentified objects, especially the ones involving groups of them flying together, are particularly interesting given the surge in interest in recent years in what are now often referred to as unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), but have previously been more commonly known as unidentified flying objects (UFO).
Members of Congress are increasingly pushing for more declassification and general transparency from the U.S. military and Intelligence Community on these matters. These calls from legislators have only grown in the wake of allegations of a massive coverup from intelligence official and Air Force veteran turned whistleblower David Grusch, which you can read more about here.
Beyond all that, Arizona is, of course, no stranger to reports of unusual drone activity and UAP sightings. In 2016, a Tucson Police helicopter had an encounter with a mysteriously capable drone in the skies over that city. Some five years later, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter was involved in an incident with a similarly puzzling UAS.
The War Zone was the first to report on the worrying appearance of drone swarms over the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant in Arizona across multiple nights in September 2019. There's also the matter of the crews of an American Airlines flight and a Phoenix Air charter business jet reporting encounters with what appeared to be the same UAP in the skies over the southern part of the state near the border with New Mexico the year before. The state is home to the notorious Phoenix Lights mass sighting in 1997, which remains a topic of discussion to this day, too.
Incidents in Arizona have, in turn, long highlighted the growing threats that UASs present, including outside of traditional battlefields. This is something The War Zone has been highlighting as a very real concern now and still evolving issue for years now, including in the context of UAP discussions and how problematic it is that the two issues are so closely intertwined.
It should be noted up front that not all of the reports about incidents in the skies over U.S. military training areas in Arizona during the 2020-2023 timeframe are necessarily notable, at least based on the information currently in hand. Some part of the uptick in overall incidents can be explained by the growing prevalence of consumer-grade drones, something that has appeared in other similar data sets in the past.
At the same time, a number of the incidents that the FAA and the Air Force documented in the past three years include details that are very attention-grabbing.
There have been a number of encounters between military aircraft and what are described as groups of craft flying together in the past three years or so in this specific part of the United States. For instance, on March 29, 2021, two pilots flying F-35s in the vicinity of Buckeye, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, made a report about "3 to 4 UAS off [the] right side while e[ast] bound at 17,000 feet," according to the FAA. On April 22, 2022, another F-35 pilot reported "8 silver UAS [at an altitude of] between 16,000 and 20,000 feet" in the vicinity of Glendale, Arizona, another Phoenix suburb, another entry in the FAA's logs says.
Fighter jets in the skies over southwestern Arizona have been encountering apparent drones with unusual characteristics and sometimes at far higher altitudes than typical consumer-grade types can operate at, as well.
For example, on March 25, 2021, pilots in a pair of F-35s flying in the vicinity of Casa Grande, Arizona, which is situated between Pheonix and Tucson, "reported a large white UAS... at FL240 [24,000 feet]," according to one entry in the FAA logs. "The object, which appeared to be stationary was described as a small GA [general aviation] aircraft or a very large UAS."
When it comes to higher altitude encounters, the pilots of two F-35s "observed a blue/green UAS while southbound at FL360 [36,000 feet]..." near Glendale on March 1, 2021, per the FAA logs. On September 28 of that year, the individual at the controls of another F-35 "observed a UAS while southwest bound at FL320 [32,000 feet]," according to another entry. The full entries for both of these incidents are reproduced below.
Then there are instances where the reported encounters involve completely unidentified "objects."
On December 13, 2022, FAA's data says that the pilot of an F-35 flying in the eastern end of R-2301E, a section of restricted airspace within the Barry M. Goldwater Range (BMGR) complex, made a report about what they described as "4 UAS." As seen below, that entry in FAA's logs says "no evasive action [was] taken."
However, a U.S. Air Force Hazardous Air Traffic Report (HATR) that Marc Cecotti obtained about that incident says that the F-35 did have to maneuver evasively to avoid the cluster of what it describes only as "four small objects." It adds that they were "observed... at FL200 [20,000 feet] slowly moving eastbound."
It's unclear whether or not "observed" in this case refers to a visual sighting of the objects in question or simply that the aircraft's radar detected them. Other HATRs that Cecotti received from the Air Force clearly differentiate between objects 'observed' via radar and those identified visually.
It is also worth noting that the FAA's logs regarding drone-related incidents are only preliminary reports and do not say whether or not the encounters were otherwise confirmed or provide details about any subsequent investigations. The conclusions and/or recommendations in all of the reports that the Air Force released to Cecotti are also completely redacted.
The Air Force's report on the December 13, 2022 incident also reveals that it was not the only such report that day. A second F-35 had two separate encounters also while flying within R-2301E.
"The first observation was at FL210 [21,000 feet] of a single object," according to the HATR. The "second observation was at FL145 [14,500 feet] of approximately eight small objects."
The unredacted portions of the HATR do not say that the second F-35 had to maneuver evasively in either of those instances. Both jets involved in these separate encounters with groups of objects that day, which were from the Air Force's 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base and were conducting training sorties at the time, were able to return to base without further incident.
The next day, December 14, the pilot of another 56th Fighter Wing F-35 on a training sortie in the southeastern portion of R-2301E made a report about a "small metallic object," according to FAA. The accompanying Air Force HATR for this incident notes that the jet's pilot first "observed [a] radar significant object at FL210 [21,000 feet]" and that the pilot then "visually identified [it]... as a small, black, and metallic object." That report does not indicate that there was any need for evasive action and that the aircraft, which was not one of the two involved in either of the encounters the day before, returned to Luke without any further disruption.
Then, on December 15, 2022, the pilots of two more 56th Fighter Wing F-35s "detected," possibly via radar alone, what the unredacted sections of the relevant Air Force HATRs each describe only as an "unidentified object." The jets were flying in the Gladden and Sells MOAs, respectively. Gladden lies to the north of R-2301E, while Sells is situated to the east. The FAA logged both of these incidents, but describes what the pilots' reported as being UASs.
Sightings of unidentified objects continued into 2023. On January 5 of this year, a 56th Fighter Wing F-35 conducting a training sortie in the Gladden MOA made radar contact with another "unidentified object at FL187 [18,700 feet]," according to one of the released HATRs.
Since the year began, there have also been still more instances of military aircraft encountering what are explicitly identified as drones in these areas. Though perhaps more mundane than encounters with unidentified objects, these incidents are differently worrying, including just from a basic flight safety perspective.
On January 19 of this year, an F-16 Viper fighter jet from an unknown unit flying in R-2301E actually collided in mid-air with "an orange-white UAS," according to the FAA's logs. The entry says the drone reportedly struck the fighter's canopy, but the extent of the damage was initially unclear. The War Zone is currently working to obtain more information about this incident.
The day after that, one of the 56th Wing's F-35s had three more encounters with what the accompanying HATR specifically describes specifically as small UASs, or sUASs. The jet was conducting a training sortie that included time in R-2301E, as well as R-2304, another section of restricted airspace within the BMGR, as well as the Sells MOA.
"sUAS 1 was detected at FL200 [20,000 feet] in the northeastern portion of Sells... ,traveling eastbound at approximately 100 knots," according to the HATR. "sUAS 3 was detected at FL260 in R-2304, traveling eastbound at approximately 100 knots."
The second sUAS was observed traveling significantly faster and higher than the other two. It "was detected at FL330 [33,000] in the northeastern portion of R-2301E, traveling westbound at 0.75 Mach."
The ability to fly at around 100 knots at altitudes of 20,000 feet or more is already well beyond the performance typically associated with small UASs, especially commercial-grade ones and even some military types. As a comparative example, AeroVironment's RQ-20 Puma, a popular small UAS in service with the U.S. military and elsewhere around the world, has a stated maximum speed of 45 knots and a typical operating altitude of around 500 feet. Being able to reach 0.75 Mach at 33,000 feet is even more unusual. This is a high-performance, likely jet-powered system that is flying at roughly 500 miles per hour.
Beyond the concerning or otherwise curious nature of these and other specific incidents contained within the FAA's logs and the Air Force HATR reports, the data points to a number of interesting broader trends.
The first is just the apparent uptick in incidents. In 2020, The War Zone received 25 separate incident reports from the Air Force Safety Center, including HATRs and other types, in response to a FOIA request for information about the encounters the service's planes had with unidentified aircraft, crewed or uncrewed, anywhere in the world between 2013 and 2019. In response to his FOIA request based on the FAA's data, Marc Cecotti received a total of nine redacted HATRs just relating to incidents in southwestern Arizona.
The HATRs Cecotti obtained include the six F-35-related incidents described earlier in this story, as well as three more that all appear to have involved C-130 variants. Those latter encounters all occurred in 2021, at altitudes under 6,000 feet, and involved what were expressly identified as drones. Two of them were categorized as dangerous near-collisions, again underscoring potential air safety concerns stemming just from increased drone overall and highlighting how malign actors might be able to exploit that reality.
It's important to note that the FAA's data does not always specify who the operators were of the planes making the reports. Together with the response from the Air Force Safety Center to Cecotti's recent FOIA request, this raises the likely possibility that Navy or Marine Corps aircraft, as well as foreign military aircraft, are seeing a similar increase in these kinds of incidents in the same general areas of Arizona.
A growing national security and flight safety problem
The War Zone has pointed out in the past how reports about incidents involving UAPs, drones, and other things, such as balloons, are clearly being passed through multiple U.S. military reporting streams. This includes classified channels and makes it difficult to easily get a sense of the full picture of what's going on – even for U.S. government officials themselves. That latter reality was laid bare by the fallout from the shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon off the eastern coast of the United States, as well as of three more still unidentified objects in U.S. and Canadian airspace, earlier this year.
The incidents involving the balloon and other 'objects' also revealed that the U.S. military, in particular, was not necessarily attuned to certain kinds of lower-end aerial threats, including literally when it came to what kinds of data its air defense radars were set up to collect.
Radars and other sensors may be part of another possible emerging trend based on what we're seeing from the FAA logs and newly released HATR reports. This has to do with the sensitivity of the F-35's sensor suite coupled with its immense data fusion capabilities. The War Zone has previously pointed out that a growing number of UAP reports from Navy pilots in the past two decades may well be tied, at least in part, to the introduction of newer, more sensitive active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars to the mix through the fielding of later block F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets and the new E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft.
Especially without having more details about the final investigations into these incidents, this also raises questions about whether advanced sensors suites on the F-35 and other U.S. military aircraft may also be picking up things and not necessarily categorizing them correctly, in at least some instances.
At the same time, the F-35, in particular, has immediate additional ways to help positively identify any object of interest, including its Distributed Aperture System (DAS) and Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). The jet's powerful electronic intelligence gathering (electronic support measures or ESM) suite is also a factor. The jet's AN/APG-81 radar, DAS, EOTS, and its ESM system can work together to detect, track and engage targets. Those targets can be detected in the infrared or radio frequency spectrum. If one sensor detects something either passively or actively, all those sensors can be immediately brought to bear on the target. This would all point to a significant amount of data being collected in encounters involving Joint Strike Strike Fighters even in the absence of direct visual (eyeball) confirmation. Older fighters also commonly carry targeting pods now that can be slaved to the jet's radar for long-range visual identification of aerial targets, as well. Even more advanced sensors are hitting the fleet, which you can read more about here.
If nothing else, the publicly available FAA logs together with the newly released Air Force data point to an increasing number of worrisome and potentially dangerous encounters with drones and other unidentified aerial objects. This includes ones that are clearly a very real hazard, as proven by the mid-air collision between the F-16 and the drone, in heavily trafficked military airspace in Arizona.
This adds to previous evidence that military training ranges on the east and west coasts of the United States have been focal points for increasing encounters with drones and other unidentified objects in the past decade. The War Zone has reported extensively on incidents involving U.S. Navy aircraft operating in range areas along the country's eastern seaboard, as well as highly concerning drone swarm events around the service's ships in areas off the shore of southern California. There is evidence that facilities outside of the continental United States and overseas are noticing this general trend, as well.
All this begs the question, what are these things, some of which are seen in groups or with high-performance capabilities, doing in America's sensitive training ranges? Where are they coming from? In the case of the Arizona events, are some of them flying across the Mexican border?
The adversary surveillance possibilities are very concerning, but clearly there are multiple potential explanations as to the wide array of objects that pilots are spotting where they shouldn't be spotting any at all.
The data also serves as further proof that this issue, in relation to America's sensitive domestic aerial training ranges, extends well beyond what has occurred in the warning areas off America's coasts.
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