Future Tense

The Mystery of the Hypersonic Tic Tac

A national security reporter on the U.S. government’s perplexing UFO report.

A person looks at a UFO- and alien-themed mural in Hiko, Nevada.
People gather for an “Area 51 Basecamp” event on Sept. 20, 2019—a spinoff from a Facebook event encouraging participants to rush the Area 51 military base in order to “see them aliens.” Mario Tama/Getty Images

A long-awaited report on UFOs—what the government now prefers to call unidentified aerial phenomena or UAPs—was released on June 25 by the director of national intelligence. It takes into account 144 verified sightings of UAP observed by military personnel over the past 15 years and attempts to make sense of them. The sightings are classified into five categories. The first four are familiar: airborne clutter, weather anomalies, U.S. government developmental craft, foreign adversary technology. The fifth—perplexingly vague—is simply “other.”

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On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Shane Harris, who reports on intelligence and national security for the Washington Post, about the government’s attempts to figure out what exactly is in the sky. It’s less a story of little green men, and more one of military technology and mystery. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Not too long ago it might’ve seemed surprising for the intelligence community to publish a report like this. The public only learned that the government was collecting this information in 2017 when the New York Times published a story on it. Why has there had been such a sea change in the way the government talks about UAPs?

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Shane Harris: I think one thing that’s driving it is just the very large number of these encounters and these sightings. Also, the fact that so many of them are being captured on film and—in the case of the Times report—made public. So you’ve got this moment where these seemingly very sane, highly credible pilots, we can now see them reacting to this anomalous object. This is categorically different than black and white photos or the weird grainy footage that somebody took with a camcorder of lights in the sky. This is a camera from inside a multimillion-dollar fighter jet with professionals flying it. So you can’t ignore it.

What did pilots see in some of these incidents?

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The most famous incident was in 2004 where pilots who were attached to the USS carrier Nimitz had this encounter that has been described as the “Flying Tic Tac.” They were out flying over the ocean, and they looked down and they saw what appeared to be whitewater on the surface of the ocean, where the surface was troubled or roiling in some kind of a way. They look down and atop this spot in the water they see this object that they’ve described as looking like a capsule—which is where the flying Tic Tac analogy comes from. It was moving very erratically, seemingly very randomly over the surface of the water, doing all kinds of things that a plane doesn’t do. It doesn’t appear to have wings. It doesn’t appear to have a propulsion system like a jet or a propeller. And then it just disappears. There’s been some reporting that it’s then picked up two seconds later, many, many miles away by the radar systems on the carrier. So these people are describing—and the sensors are backing them up—some kind of physical object that appears to be moving at rates of speed and demonstrating aerodynamic properties and characteristics that don’t match what we understand as human technology.

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Part of the report that stood out to me was about flight characteristics. These things are stationary in wind, they’re moving against the wind. They’re going really fast. And what I find so interesting is it’s just flopped into the report. There’s no “why” behind that. It’s just the “what.”

It’s the most intriguing part of the report, I think. It’s almost as if they’ve gone out, they’ve seen this thing that very few people have ever seen before and they can’t explain it, but they don’t attempt to explain it. The report says, “appear to remain stationary in winds aloft, moved against winds, maneuver abruptly, or move a considerable speed without discernible means of propulsion.” It’s this very clinical, technical way of describing something extraordinary and completely anomalous in the experience of these pilots.

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Of course, people seeing something anomalous in the sky isn’t new. The U.S. government has been thinking about and studying UAPs and sometimes manipulating the public perception of them since the end of World War II.

Famously, in 1969, a study was published, formally known as the Condon Committee, which was an Air Force-funded effort out of the University of Colorado, to basically try and apply some more scientific study to unidentified flying objects. This study ultimately concludes that this is not an area worthy of scientific inquiry. At the same time, it’s not as though the government then for years is not aware of other sightings, but it doesn’t appear that there’s any really rigorous effort—or even formal effort at all—to categorize them.

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It becomes almost a kind of folklore, even within the military. And pilots who’ve talked about seeing things out there talk about the reluctance to share those stories with people—even though they’ve all had them—because you’ll be looked at like you’re crazy, or you’re a fool, or you’re reaching for a conclusion that’s not supported by evidence. And that that’s not behavior we like to see, certainly from scientists, but also from people who are trained to fly really expensive aircraft.

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In the Cold War era, the government did little to discourage fanciful stories about aliens, because they served as cover when civilians accidentally spotted secret technology—most famously near Roswell, New Mexico and Nevada’s Area 51. The myths around those sightings fed the public appetite for spooky things and helped keep secrets secret.

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So in a sense, the government has an incentive for making you think this is all just spooky ghost stories and nonsense, because it keeps you from asking questions about the actual supersonic jet and the stealth aircraft that the military is developing. So the stigma in some ways worked for the military and the intelligence community. But now, what we’re finding from experts is that it’s very much working against them, because there are clearly these sightings of objects that are not U.S. government technology. And if people in the military are afraid to report them, then we’re not going to have good information to figure out what they are.

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When it comes to unknown phenomena in the sky, a lot of us think of aliens and crazy movie plot lines, but our national security apparatus is thinking more in terms of defense.

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They’re viewing these things as threats. These are objects in our airspace, next to our warships, next to our planes. And we don’t know what they are. They may be hostile. They could be collecting information. If they’re a foreign government system, it could be collecting intelligence on us.

If these are Russian or Chinese hypersonic drones, would we even get a clear picture of that?

It’s a great question. If we’re not getting a clear picture of it, one question is why? Let’s just posit, for sake of argument, that the Russians or the Chinese have developed highly advanced craft that don’t look like normal planes, that move at incredible speeds. Why have we not detected that until now? Why have they been able to keep that a secret? If we’ve invested all of this money in advanced weaponry of our own and advanced detection systems, but our adversaries have managed to build something that completely got past us, that is more advanced than anything that we have, and that defies our ability to characterize it in any kind of consistent or dependable way, that would be a really, really big deal and would speak to some major vulnerability or gap in our national security architecture.

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You cover national security and intelligence. How did your sources react to this?

I think with a bit of befuddlement as well, but most people I have talked to on this look at these systems—the ones that really display the abnormal flight characteristics—and they say, “This is not the U.S. government’s. We didn’t build this.” The U.S. government does not have the technology and the capability to build systems that accelerate to thousands of miles an hour, or sit there and appear to hover in the wind with no sign of propulsion.

And does Raytheon? Or are they saying this belongs to some other country, some other technological alignment?

The people I’ve talked to who think that it could be a manmade technology hold out the possibility that it is a Russian or a Chinese system that’s very advanced. They can’t understand though, in the cases of the ones—these 18 or so observed incidents that just defy all understanding of aerodynamics—how the Russians or the Chinese could have built something even more advanced than our stuff. And maybe that speaks to a kind of American bias that we have the best technology, but based on everything we observe, we do. If we haven’t built a sort of hypersonic Tic Tac, do we really think the Chinese built it? My sources are very skeptical of that.

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This report is only nine pages long and it’s unclassified. There is another version that is classified. Basically, the government is only telling us a little bit. What did you make of that?

From talking to people who’ve seen the classified version of the report and from reading other reporting on that, it doesn’t seem like the classified version is reaching a conclusion that they’re not sharing. I think what you’re going to find is just more documentation about the individual incidents, but no particular answer. And what I made of this is that the intelligence community—and the military—are being very careful not to get ahead of themselves on this subject, because I think that would only undermine and potentially discredit the whole inquiry.

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You had this amazing quote in your story from Bill Nelson—NASA administrator, former Senator, former astronaut—who saw the classified version and said, “The hair stood up on the back of my neck.” As a citizen, as a taxpayer, I want to know more. How much should we get to know?

Well, I think that it’s reasonable to think that Americans should get to know a lot more. If it’s adversary technology, if it’s Russian or Chinese, and there’s a legitimate national security reason to keep it a secret, OK, I guess we could have that argument. But why shouldn’t people have the right to know about these unidentified objects that are flying around doing these extraordinary things that are being observed frankly, by people who we pay our tax dollars to record these videos?

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When will we know what these unidentified objects really are?

I think the answer to that question actually depends on how much the government is willing to fund more research into figuring out what these things are, because I actually don’t think—and maybe I’ll be proven wrong about this—I don’t think the ultimate answer to what it is is sitting someplace in a file, locked away in a vault, metaphorically anyway. I don’t think that there are five people in the government who actually know the answer. And so whether they intend to actually make a good-faith effort to learn that, or just happily dwell in the mystery, is really going to depend upon public pressure.

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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