Future Tense

Why the Pentagon Can’t Identify Flying Objects

And when they do, they’re still not gonna tell you.

A green hot air ballon with the face of an alien on it.
A hot air balloon with a design of an alien face flies at the Red Rock Balloon Rally in Gallup, New Mexico, on Dec. 4, 2005. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.

On Oct. 4, 1918, the U.S. Army Signal Corps successfully launched, and then lost, an aerial torpedo. The Kettering Bug, as the torpedo was formally known, is an ancestor of both cruise missiles and drones, but on that day in 1918, it presented a unique challenge for the military unit responsible for launching it. As the Signal Corps interviewed farmers in the area around Dayton, Ohio, to try to find where the Bug had gone, the Corps lacked the language to explain what, exactly, the plane was. Even if they had had the terminology, the aerial torpedo program was itself top secret, and the country was still fighting the Great War.

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Some witnesses to the Bug’s crash described seeing a pilot parachute out of the drone, or described its descent as the actions of a drunk or crazy pilot. But the Army did not dispute those perceptions—instead it went so far as to say the nonexistent pilot had jumped out early and was receiving treatment in a hospital. The witnesses who led the Army to its missing drone were not trusted with the honest truth of what they had seen, as a matter of national security.

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This past Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a new report on unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP. (UFO was once itself a military term, but as it now carries with it the pop cultural connotation of alien visitors, the military has moved to “UAP” as an even less descriptive catchall term.) The report, a mere nine pages including two appendixes, does not identify the mysterious unidentified phenomena—neither as mundane human technology nor anything extraterrestrial. Instead, the report defers certainty to future investigations, asking the public to trust conclusions built on evidence that the military concedes may be the result of sensor or pilot error.

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The Pentagon in 2021 is much transformed from the Army exploring aerial torpedoes in 1918, but there’s some important continuity in how it decides to disclose information and to whom. When it comes to modern military mysteries of the sky, the knowable truth exists somewhere between what the public can see, what the military can see and doesn’t want to share, and what the military does not want to acknowledge that it doesn’t know.

After a buildup to the report that included high-profile media coverage, as well as a call from Sen. Marco Rubio to “take it seriously and have a process to take it seriously,” the report lands with a dull thud. It examines 144 sightings detected by U.S. government sensors (not just video) between 2004 and 2021, and names 18 of those incidents as potentially demonstrating an unusual flight pattern. Instead of declaring them evidence of top-secret military research, foreign craft with a human origin, or alien visitation, the report simply labels them incidents for further study.

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“The Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF) considered a range of information on UAP described in U.S. military and IC (Intelligence Community) reporting,” the executive summary reads, “but because the reporting lacked sufficient specificity, ultimately recognized that a unique, tailored reporting process was required to provide sufficient data for analysis of UAP events.” In other words, when it comes to documenting the unexplainable in the sky, the military simply lacks rigorous data collection.

In part, this lack of data collection is the direct result of choices made by the military, primarily the Air Force. In 1969, the Air Force ended Project Blue Book, its collection of UFO sightings, after a report concluded that “90 percent of all UFO reports prove to be quite plausibly related to ordinary objects,” like the many sightings that turned out to just be photographs of the planet Venus. Of the remaining 10 percent of sightings, at least half could be explained as public observation of top-secret military spy planes, though that information would not be disclosed until 1992. By collecting reports on UFOs, the Air Force had hoped Project Blue Book would detect new and novel airborne threats against the United States. What it discovered, instead, is that sometimes people would observe spy planes. After closing the project, the Air Force distanced itself from publicly responding to unusual observations in the sky, after decades of close association.

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Both the Air Force and UFOs trace their origins to the summer of 1947. On June 24, amateur pilot Kenneth Arnold reported a flying saucer near Washington’s Mount Rainer, setting off a flurry of other reports of flying saucers. Just a month later, President Harry Truman signed into law the National Security Act of 1947, which made the Air Force independent. And similarly, pilots reporting unusual sightings in the sky are as old as pilots.

Securing the sky meant looking for any new threats that might emerge overhead, seemingly out of thin air. This meant watching for new threats from hostile nations, especially as tensions rose with the Soviet Union. “And [the Air Force says] over and over again, since 1948, [reporting on UFOs] just needs to become part of our normal intelligence work,” says Kate Dorsch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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That tension, between wanting to accurately document threats while keeping military secrets, would immediately collide in Roswell, New Mexico.

On June 14, 1947, about 80 miles north of Roswell, father and son ranchers W.W. “Mac” and Vernon Brazel discovered the wreckage of a massive balloon. Three and a half weeks later, Mac collected what he could find and delivered it to the local sheriff. Brazel said that media stories, like that of Arnold’s flying saucer sighting, prompted him to show the debris to authorities.

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When the sheriff contacted the local airbase to inquire as to the origin of this mysterious object, an intelligence officer chose to tell the press that the Army had come into possession of a flying saucer. “Apparently, it was better from the Air Force’s perspective that there was a crashed ‘alien’ spacecraft out there than to tell the truth,” Roger Launius, the former curator of space history at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, told Smithsonian magazine in 2017. The lie also happened to be exactly what the public wanted to hear.

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Just a day after the intelligence officer’s report, the Army offered a clarifying half-truth: It identified the object as a crashed weather balloon. The full truth, declassified in 1994, is that what crashed at Roswell was a balloon from Project Mogul, a secret military program that put microphones and other acoustic sensors on balloons to detect signs of a Soviet nuclear test.

While the explanations offered for the Kettering Bug crash or the Roswell balloon may seem laughable today, we can only say that from a perspective of decades of disclosure and declassification. Even as the military acknowledges the veracity of recent sightings, complete with videos and testimony from pilots, we should be skeptical that the military is telling the whole truth about what it knows. The military can keep the nature of classified technology secret even from the pilots who observe it in action.

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Our new era of UFO sightings began with three videos leaked online. FLIR, a video filmed in 2004 and online in some form since at least 2007, was the subject of a major New York Times story in 2017 alongside GIMBAL, a video filmed in January 2015 that was released online by the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a UFO-hunting venture headed by former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge. (To The Stars also released GOFAST, another video filmed in January 2015, in 2018.)

The Pentagon has since confirmed they were real military videos. Each clip, shot from a camera attached to a military plane, shows what appears to be an object moving against the sky in an unusual way, traveling at great speed against the wind and turning at unusual angles. In the videos from 2015, the pilots can be heard reacting, too, speculating as to the nature of the objects. (“That’s a fucking drone, bro.” … “Look at that thing! It’s rotating.”)

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These videos give the appearance of authoritative documents, of proof on film. But the new report treads a careful line between saying that what is visible is what happened and acknowledging the limitations of the sensors on military planes.

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Carefully, the report parses that most of the phenomena reported “probably do represent physical objects,” and were recorded by a range of sensors, including radar, infrared, electro-optical (think “normal camera”), weapon seekers, and visual confirmation (by pilots or other human observers). But it suggests that some UAPs’ unusual flight characteristics “could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception” and will require rigorous analysis. The report dryly notes that “The sensors mounted on U.S. military platforms are typically designed to fulfill specific missions. As a result, those sensors are not generally suited for identifying UAP.” But it’s also worth considering that some sensor readings from the sightings are likely to remain military secrets until declassification—which could take a long time.

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There was a brief moment in the 1940s when the Air Force worked with Kodak to develop a camera specifically for taking pictures of UFOs. Dorsch says, “Immediately, it is a total failure. They can’t figure out what the technology needs, or how to make it work. And even if it could work, the Air Force was not convinced it would be worth the cost or would even be that successful.” So in place of a dedicated sensor designed to detect the unidentifiable, the military has to lean on the sensors it already has on vehicles, built to find known threats.

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That’s to say nothing of the strange readings that might result if signals—visual, infrared, or radio wave—were being actively interfered with. The report acknowledges this possibility in mentions of “spoofing”—the deliberate, hostile distortion of signals. If UAP sightings are the result of spoofing, that suggests flaws in the sensors the military will want to fix. Perhaps more importantly, it also suggests some other nation (or more than one) has figured out enough about American sensors to be able to fool them.

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Some of the activity depicted in the released videos, like unusual acceleration speeds of unknown objects, could also be the result of known but not disclosed sensor error. Military sensors exist to put weapons on the right targets and to protect the people and vehicles firing those weapons. Revealing sensor error means letting another country know a specific weak point in that process.

It is important to remember that while a handful of videos has been made public, this report draws on 144 incidents. The military is collecting far more information than it shares with the public, and it likely has especially mundane reasons for refusing to disclose all that it captures. For now, these 144 incidents remain mysterious as the military hopes that more deliberately collected information leads to better internal analysis.

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The report says that with better data collection, and pilots more willing to talk (work to overcome the stigma of reporting UAP was the centerpiece of a New Yorker story published in April), the Pentagon will be able to categorize all sightings into five useful categories. These are: airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena, U.S. government or industry developmental programs, “foreign adversary systems,” and a catchall “other” bin. Of those, the military likely has an interest in keeping government projects secret and in confirming foreign systems before disclosing them to the public.

That even the military, with every sensor it has at its disposal, expects to still have uncategorizable sightings is an acknowledgment of the limitations of perception, not an endorsement of novel theories of aircraft. It is also a useful tool for the military, a way to publicly acknowledge a mystery it may well have the answer to, but one it deems too crucial for national security to fully disclose.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the military, in possession of a full but embarrassing truth, sat back as the public filled in the blanks with anything but stories of error.

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

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