This Is What Top Missile Defense Executives Just Said About UFOs

The U.S. military constantly monitors the airspace over and around the country for threats ranging from wayward Cessnas to truly unidentified craft, primarily using a network of radars, many of which are shared with the FAA, as well as alert fighter aircraft. This ecosystem is increasingly eyed for enhancements as the nature of the threat to the homeland morphs, especially in terms of the danger posed by cruise missile and drone attacks. At the same time, Congress is literally holding public hearings about unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP, more classically referred to as UFOs. The topic exploded in the media thanks mainly to a media blitz by retired defense intelligence officials. In fact, Congress is now considering providing something akin to blanket immunity to public officials, military personnel, and even contractors, with any info on the UAP topic.

With this in mind, The War Zone thought the Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) gathering yesterday of missile defense managers from top defense contractors that were brought together to discuss homeland cruise missile defense was a great opportunity to get perspective on the highly contentious UAP issue through their unique lens. We had a question about how existing and future airspace-monitoring and air defense systems aimed at countering cruise missiles could be harnessed to address the challenges presented by UAPs and the moderator, Global Business Editor at, Marcus Weisgerber, was kind enough to present it to the panel.

Before we get to their responses, we need to provide a bit more background.

Executives from most of the top U.S. prime defense contractors sat on the CSIS panel. CSIS

There have been a concerning number of reportedly unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft or objects over military facilities, near military aircraft and warships, and in designated test and training airspace in recent years. In particular, it is no secret that unidentified objects with small radar cross sections have been detected in military training ranges along both coasts with alarming regularity. The War Zone detailed a rash of encounters by Navy fighter pilots with unidentified craft off the U.S. East Coast over the last decade. There also was a bizarre string of events off Southern California in 2019. While it may be possible that these recent sightings include encounters with objects with extreme or unexplainable abilities, we have yet to see evidence of this. That doesn’t mean evidence doesn’t exist, though. What we do know for a fact is there have been many sightings that are explainable, but still extremely troubling.

An existing network of sensors monitors these same areas for potential nefarious actions, but upgrading this architecture to be able to better detect low-flying and small radar cross-section cruise missiles and drones is becoming a massive priority. This spurred the upgrade of F-15C/D and F-16C/D jets tasked with homeland defense with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, for instance, which can detect small, low-flying targets. The addition of infrared search-and-track (IRST) systems will help these fighters further to detect, identify, and engage these hard-to-spot targets. But these are just some first steps and a much more extensive sensor upgrade will be needed to better surveil the approaches to the continental U.S. and monitor for these threats. These same capabilities could be brought to bear for detecting and classifying UAPs. This includes having networking and sensor fusion capabilities so that even more complex targets – like those employing electronic warfare tactics – can still be detected, understood, and dealt with if need be.

Nick Bucci, vice president of defense systems and technologies at General Atomics, expounded on this idea.

“Maybe something that is designed to spoof one particular sensor can’t spoof another thing,” Bucci said. “So if I can ensure detection from, say, an [eleoctroptical/infrared] sensor or a [radio frequency] sensor, now I can start pulling that picture together better and getting better characteristics because I’ve looked at it different ways.”

“Using passive sensors is another great way to get different information. Why don’t we talk about acoustic sensors?” he continued. “There are a lot of really good acoustic sensors out there, which we happen to make – one that has been used for cruise missile defense and counter-UAS. Those are important sensors to now bring into this architecture. So that you can get that broader picture of the characteristics of a particular threat or object so you can tell whether it’s a threat, to be sure you’re going to do the right thing.”

Creating a multi-spectrum architecture where a sufficient number of sensors of various types are continuously monitoring the airspace is a costly proposition, said Doug Booth, director of radar and integrated air and missile defense at Lockheed Martin. Still, using ground radar installations in conjunction with airborne radars will help to paint a better picture of objects approaching, entering, or transiting the U.S. National Airspace, he said.

“I think there are multiple things that can be done there to help us solve the problem,” Booth said.

Jonathan Casey, director of small-to-medium ground-based air defense mission capability at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, said identifying objects as threats will always be difficult and that increased levels of scrutiny should be applied depending on whether the nation is at war or perceives an imminent national security threat – a point we discussed previously in great detail as it pertains to UAP. In times of war, the military could put less effort into parsing what an object is by assuming every unidentified object detected is a potential threat and treating it as such, he said.

“When there’s a very, very high level of alert, do you reduce the level of confirmation you need in terms of combat ID?” Casey said. “I think that’s a difficult decision. …  Other than getting eyes on the target. It’s never gonna be 100 percent. I mean, that’s the 100 percent way to do it.”

Artificial intelligence and algorithmic analysis could sift through large quantities of airspace monitoring data to highlight abnormalities for human technicians to consider, Casey said. Social media companies take the same approach when trying to identify bot accounts among the millions of legitimate users and the level of scrutiny could be dialed up or down depending on the current threat alert state, he said. 

David McFarland, senior director of missile defense programs at BAE Systems and a retired Navy captain, said the military services already employ different standards for combat identification in the missile defense arena, depending on threat levels. But those standards outlining flight characteristics and electronic emissions of various known enemy missiles can be circumvented, he said. Adversaries can use the crowded U.S. airspace to mask nefarious activity or even attacks, he said.

And crowded it is. We have cataloged and geolocated thousands of official FAA safety reports involving drones from pilots, many of which are unidentified, from across the country in recent years. You can check that out here and read more about our findings here and here.

“When I think about defense of the National Capital Region [NCR], boy, I can make a Tomahawk [cruise missile] kind of fly like a commercial airliner,” McFarland said. “I could probably get into squawk mode and code that looks like a commercial airliner. Oh, by the way, there’s this nice mountain range … right outside of D.C. that can mask my approach and come in that way. Squawk and emote and code and looking all great. I can get away with it one time at least right? But that one time matters.”

The NCR is the most highly surveilled and defended airspace in the United States. Nothing else exists like in the country in terms of a standing advanced integrated air defense system that includes many types of sensors and surface-to-air missiles. Still, concerns exist regarding its vulnerability to emerging capabilities and asymmetric attacks.

A U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missile flies by an isolated industrial complex during a flight test. U.S. DoD

His solution was to thwart missile defense threats before they are within striking range of the U.S. homeland. McFarland used the example of Cold War-era anti-submarine warfare (ASW), in which the Navy would use satellite imagery to count Soviet Oscar class submarines in their homeports. When one was “missing,” the Navy would then dispatch ASW aircraft to go find it, he said. 

“Before it becomes an air defense problem, make it an ASW problem,” McFarland said. “We’ve got to start thinking big. We’ve got to start thinking about the battlespace differently. It’s now the homeland, which means everything else, you know, we have to be out there with our forward-deployed forces with the mindset that we are defending the homeland.”

The Navy is certainly concerned with the homeland, as it now considers the Atlantic a contested environment, and Russian submarines, some of which are extremely hard to detect, operate untracked in that body of water. China’s ability to reach out and put the U.S. at risk of attack is also increasing.

The now infamous videos seen below, taken using ATFLIR targeting pods on U.S. Navy F/A-18s, show examples of unidentified — at least publicly — objects Navy aircraft have encountered in the past. Exactly what these videos show or don’t show remains a hotly contested topic.

But the Navy shoulders no official burden to police the U.S. National Airspace. That responsibility lies with the Air Force, which talks a lot about cruise missile defense, but says next to nothing about UAPs. The two issues are almost inextricably linked because an object flying toward or into U.S. airspace must be considered a threat until it can be positively identified as benign. 

That requires seamless sensor fusion and split-second data analytics, McFarland said.

“We have to flow information openly,” McFarland said. “It all comes back down to data.”

The U.S. has sufficiently advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to identify most aircraft and other objects that enter its airspace, but there are not enough sensors deployed and they must be upgraded on par with threats that could spoof or evade them, said Michael Noble, senior director of advanced missions at Anduril Industries.

“We have fantastic radar,” he said. ”We have fantastic EO [electro-optical], awesome [signals intelligence], etc. It will continue to improve and we need more sensors, absolutely. But I think a key thing to realize here is this is not something we solve. The enemy has a vote here, so the way we do combat ID is going to vary from one target to another and they’re going to adjust. … This architecture is going to have to evolve.”

Noble said the future U.S. air defense architecture should include the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) layered atop other overhead satellite-based sensors, ground radars, and airborne assets. All of those things must be integrated into a single system through which information flows seamlessly, he said. 

HBTSS satellites are designed to provide continuous tracking and targeting of enemy missiles launched from land, sea, or air, according to Northrop Grumman, the company developing the system. They are one part of the Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) multi-layered constellation of satellites, “which can sense heat signatures to detect and track missiles from their earliest stages of launch through interception,” one company press release says.

HBTTS satellites will provide continuous tracking and handoff to enable targeting of enemy missiles launched from land, sea or air. Northrop Grumman

Bucci agreed with Noble’s prescribed approach, but said the optimal multi-layered, multi-spectrum airspace defense architecture is far enough in the future that an intermediate plan to handle detection and missile-defense warnings is needed.

“Persistence is what we need,” Bucci said. “You don’t have persistence until you get that fully-populated constellation of satellites that gives you 24/7/365 heads-up data. In the meantime, you have search capabilities. You put out medium altitude, high altitude, long-endurance UAVs with the right sensor suites on them to be able to search to where indications and warnings have given you some level of information that I now have a rogue submarine off the East Coast.”

While most people think “flying saucer” and “aliens” when they hear UFO, discussions of unknown airspace intrusions are now mainstream enough to be seriously considered in the halls of power in Washington. The government’s reframing of the issue as unidentified aerial phenomenon is one indication that the debate is moving from the realm of science fiction and conspiracy theory to real-world national security. And there are a multitude of good reasons for this that have nothing to do with hunting for the paranormal or visitors from space invaders. The biggest being that the next big weapons capability breakthrough may very well look and act unlike what came before it — alien in nature, if you will. An adversary could and likely would leverage silly cultural stigmas against reporting unidentified flying objects to their advantage, even making the mundane appear anything but.

Regardless, that a panel of high-ranking defense industry executives fielded a question about UAP with straight faces underlines both the reality that the issue is a serious one and that missile-defense technology is a potential solution to detecting, tracking, and identifying these phenomena. 

Ultimately, as they said, solving the UAP issue will require a greater number of more-advanced sensors, signaling a secondary market for the technologies their companies already sell to or could develop for the government to defend the U.S. homeland against enemy missiles. They likely understand that if Congress believes UAP are a threat to national security, dollars will flow toward that problem set. And considering that the Pentagon is already standing up a much more deeply mandated and resourced office dedicated to this issue, and those who hold the purse strings are a driving force behind its establishment, they would be right. 

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