Future Tense

Undisclosed Flying Objects

The military’s UFO videos don’t tell us anything about aliens, but they tell us plenty about the military.

Screenshot of a blurry, vaguely disklike shape in the sky
The “GIMBAL” video released by the U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy

Against the silver-gray sky, an object glows, a dark mass clearly captured on camera. Nearly 72 seconds into the 76-second clip, the object turns, and then appears to speed out of frame. All we know about the object is this: In November 2004, a camera on a Navy fighter jet recorded something.

On April 27, the U.S. Navy officially released the clip, titled “FLIR,” in a batch of three previously leaked videos, saying, “The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified.’ ”

“Unidentified aerial phenomena” is a modern update on the old UFO terminology, which while now often used as a synonym for aliens was itself a result of the U.S. Air Force’s decadeslong attempt to understand and explain weird observations of, well, unidentified aerial objects. Not knowing what, exactly, an object in the sky is predates the coining of “UFO” by centuries, but such strangeness became a matter of national security around the time of the Air Force’s establishment.

Since the first news story about a flying saucer sighting, in 1947, pilots have reported, and instruments have recorded, things that cannot be explained. And whether the government hides that footage or releases it, these phenomena exist at the nexus of what science can presently explain and what the military is able and willing to publicly disclose.

To describe a UFO honestly is to sit in comfort with not knowing. It is to balance three seemingly incompatible truths: The person who saw the UFO is speaking honestly, the camera did capture something real, and the U.S. government is being straightforward when it says that it cannot explain what the pilot saw and what the camera recorded.

Often, the public accepts the first two facts but not the third. This paradox of trust—faith in pilots and sensors and distrust of the military bureaucracy that speaks for them—reemerged when the Navy released the three videos on April 27 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The FLIR video clip has been circulating online since 2007. “GIMBAL” and “GOFAST” were published in late 2017 and early 2018 by the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a UFO-hunting venture headed by former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge. In those clips of two incidents in 2015, viewers can hear the pilots react with whoops and speculation to the strange objects that appear before them.

FLIR and GIMBAL had already run in the New York Times in 2017 as part of investigative reporting on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Under the auspices of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the secretive program ran from 2007 to 2012. Championed internally by the likes of then-Sens. Harry Reid, Ted Stevens, and Daniel Inouye, the program sought to apply military funding and resources to the study of unexplained aerial phenomena, for the first time since the late 1960s.

Reid told the New York Times his interest in UFOs came in part from John Glenn, the former senator and astronaut, who was worried that the military chain of command was not taking sightings of unexplained phenomena seriously. By choosing to again fund research into UFOs, the senators were reopening a decades-old fight between military pilots and military scientists over how much faith to put in fallible human testimony and imperfect sensors—one that had previously been decisively won by the scientists.

“Twentieth-century (and maybe now 21st century) UFOs are intrinsically bound up in the way the U.S. military understands the world,” Kate Dorsch, postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an email. “UFOs don’t exist without the postwar national security state and the totalizing consequences of nuclear weaponry.”

That modern post–World War II national security state was formally created by the National Security Act of 1947. Among other changes, the act spun off the Air Force from the Army, established the CIA, and broadly set in place the institutions that would manage the Cold War.

While the territories of the United States had seen battle and occupation during World War II, the contiguous states had remained virtually untouched. But long-range bombers and nuclear weapons, to be followed in the coming decades by long-range missiles, had newly eroded any sense of security that the oceans once provided. When the Air Force was transformed into a coequal branch of the military, part of its mandate was to protect against aircraft, which now promised real, tangible harm from afar.

Thus, the Air Force investigated the early sightings of flying saucers as a matter of national security. The reports included naturally occurring aerial and atmospheric phenomena, deliberate hoaxes, hallucinations, and misidentifications of common objects. By early 1949, the Air Force concluded that these sightings weren’t a matter of immediate national security concern.

“The USAF then tried for decades to get people to care less about the phenomena, though not to stop caring entirely,” Dorsch said. This meant press releases and comments to journalists urging the public to resist hysteria, but also requests to calmly report sightings with as much detail as possible to local Air Force bases or police. “The USAF [was] simultaneously trying to debunk current sightings while reminding people to be vigilant. It’s a trap they can’t escape.”

Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s collection of UFO sightings, ran from 1952 through 1969. The University of Colorado published a review of Blue Book’s findings in 1969. This report focused on 59 case studies, explaining sightings as natural phenomena, hoaxes, or the result of unusual perspectives, like a plane appearing disklike when seen through the exhaust of a passing jet. A mysterious streak of light seen in the sky from Kentucky to Pennsylvania, the report revealed, was a Soviet satellite breaking into pieces upon atmospheric reentry. Altogether, the report found explainable phenomena account for at least 90 percent of sightings.

Half of those unexplained sightings were actually explainable, but the public would have to wait 23 years to get a clear answer. In 1992, the CIA published its declassified history of the U-2 and OXCART high-altitude spy plane programs. “U-2 and later OXCART flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports [collected by Project Blue Book] during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s,” the history reveals.

When called by Blue Book investigators during that time period, the CIA would cross-reference the sightings with known but undisclosed U-2 flight logs. The sightings were explainable, if not disclosable. Between natural phenomena, hoaxes, optical illusions, and previously undisclosed classified plane flights, only a small fraction of all sightings from Project Blue Book remained truly unexplained. But none of them was the secret enemy aircraft the Air Force was meant to be vigilant against.

Fearing public panic and hysteria more than nonexistent aerial invaders, the Air Force began public disclosures of some of the data it had collected, starting in the 1950s. It is impossible to know if a full disclosure of the spy plane flights, alongside other evidence, would have helped the public trust that the military meant it when it said some percentage of phenomena lacked explanations. But these disclosures could never be complete, nor completely reassuring, because the nature of the national security state is that it requires secrecy from other nations and from the public.

This is a tension that persists to the present. The Department of Defense’s official statement with the April release of the videos specifies that the “authorized release of these unclassified videos does not reveal any sensitive capabilities or systems.” It is a disclosure bound up in the language of classification and secrecy, of an unknowable sum of information still kept from public awareness. In the space between what the military discloses and what the military knows but does not disclose exists room for people to imagine aliens.

“There are reasons why the Pentagon doesn’t tell us precisely what they’re doing, of course, but you’ll remember that when those videos initially came out in 2017, one of the big deals was that the Defense Department was spending $22 million on something the American people knew nothing about,” said Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies. In the scale of Pentagon spending, $22 million is minuscule; the military spent 10 times that much developing an ultimately canceled alternative engine for the F-35 stealth fighter. But it’s still a massive amount to secretly be spending on alien research.

“Part of the issue here is that because governments and some institutions haven’t been transparent for so long, it allows people to build a reasonable-sounding distrust even if, now, those places are expressing honestly that they don’t quite know what’s going on,” Merlan said.

By design, military secrecy makes it hard to distinguish between a genuine “We don’t know” and a careful “At this moment, we are unwilling to disclose anything more than ‘We don’t know.’ ”

Nothing in the videos released by the Navy sits outside the long history of the unexplained in the sky. We haven’t suddenly found aliens, nor suddenly discovered, for the first time, government research into UFOs. But the lack of a positive confirmation of what, exactly, is captured on the video gives space for doubt to grow.

If there is anything novel in the Navy videos, it comes not from the pilots or the public but from the head of the national security state. The entire apparatus of intelligence gathering is designed, at least in its most benevolent interpretation, to provide clear, useful information to the president of the United States.

For the national security state to work, it does not need, really, the trust of the general public. There is little harm for nuclear readiness if someone in rural Nevada sees a spy plane and thinks it’s a sign of alien invasion. But the entire edifice crumbles if the president, the designated end user and beneficiary of all the secrets collected by the federal government, is happier to embrace aliens than uncertainty.

“I just wonder if it’s real,” President Donald Trump reportedly said when asked about the Navy’s release. “That’s a hell of a video.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.