military industrial complex

Understanding the UFO War

Balloons are no match for America’s multitrillion-dollar air defenses. Hopefully. Photo: Randall Hill/REUTERS

On Sunday at 7.43 p.m. EST, as 100 million Americans were watching the Philadelphia Eagles pull ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs in the second quarter of Super Bowl LVII, Air Force general Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command and Northern Command, told reporters on a briefing call that he could not rule out the possibility that the object U.S. fighters had just shot down — the third in three days — had come from outer space. When asked “Have you ruled out aliens or extraterrestrials?,” VanHerck replied, “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.”

To a public long habituated to the idea that the military has for decades hidden and lied about its knowledge of alien visitors, the statement sounded close to an outright acknowledgement that the big ET cover-up is real and finally coming undone. But as much as we want to believe “the truth is out there,” what’s actually going on behind the military’s new campaign against unidentified flying objects is something quite different, though mysterious and scary in its own way.

This week’s aerial events are a continuation of a story that has been unfolding since 2017, when the New York Times published a blockbuster article revealing the existence of a previously secret Air Force program to study seemingly inexplicable interactions between military pilots and “unidentified aerial phenomena.” In the years that followed, the military released reports describing hundreds of other sightings, many of them apparently impossible to explain in terms of known human technology.

The military is clearly grappling with a phenomenon it doesn’t fully understand. But based on interviews with defense officials and military experts, that mysterious phenomenon has less to do with alien life-forms than with potential adversaries here on Earth and how they might take advantage of changing technology to erode long-standing U.S. military dominance.

During the Cold War, both the Americans and the Soviets were focused on nuclear strategy. In air defense, this meant building bombers that could strike fast and deep and fighters that were even faster to intercept them. To detect enemy threats, both sides built vast radar networks that could detect and track large, fast-moving objects traveling long distances at high altitudes. Long after the Cold War ended, Russia and the United States have continued on this path, pouring billions into things like hypersonic weapons and nuclear-powered cruise missiles — and matching defensive technologies.

Meanwhile, consumer tech was moving in another direction. Computers got so small and inexpensive that everyone started carrying one around in their pockets. Cheap control technology turned electric drones into ubiquitous retail items. Suddenly a whole bunch of countries that couldn’t hope to afford a spy satellite or a hypersonic missile could build low-altitude military drones as good as any in the world.

The main takeaway from America’s new war against UFOs is that the military is waking up to the urgency of a changed environment. Balloons and drones have been probing our defenses for years now; we simply weren’t looking for them in an organized way. Only after the first Chinese surveillance balloon was identified and shot down did the Air Force retune its radar systems’ “velocity gates” to pick up slow-moving as well as fast-moving targets, allowing them to pick up the subsequent three objects.

For an incumbent great power like the United States, the development of cheap, powerful new technologies with obvious military applications presents a dangerous inflection point. America’s sunk costs in its current air-defense posture can be reckoned in the trillions. There’s an entire generation of Pentagon officials who have spent their careers learning how to do things they way they do them now and a vast and lavishly compensated defense industry devoted to helping them to do it. It would be very easy for everyone involved to keep moving in the same direction.

Easy but dangerous. For a sense of just how much so, look to the war in Ukraine, where Russia rolled in with a massive advantage in old-school military firepower only to get chopped up for parts by a nimble, creative opponent using off-the-shelf commercial drones and inexpensive shoulder-launched missiles. Russia’s fighter jets, legendary for their air-to-air combat maneuverability, owned the skies at 30,000 feet but were absolutely irrelevant at treetop altitudes, where Ukraine’s crowdfunded drones were dropping hand grenades down tank hatches and calling in artillery strikes.

This new air-defense environment is so novel and so far outside the experience of most journalists that it’s fallen to military specialists to try to make sense of the situation. A standout has been Tyler Rogoway, editor of the War Zone, who over the past few years has painstakingly documented how the military’s publicly revealed UAP sightings are best explained not as extraterrestrial visitations but as efforts by a determined and resourceful rival to gather intelligence on U.S. forces and develop technologies to defeat us.

“It is clear that a very terrestrial adversary is toying with us in our own backyard using relatively simple technologies — drones and balloons — and making off with what could be the biggest intelligence haul of a generation,” Rogoway wrote in 2021. “While that may disappoint some who hope the origins of all these events are far more exotic in nature, the strategic implications of these bold operations, which have been happening for years, undeterred, are absolutely massive.”

In this context, the strange events of the past week are less about a new threat suddenly emerging than about the U.S. military continuing its juddering, jolting awakening to a threat that has been gradually developing over time. It’s not surprising that a large cultural shift like this should take place in fits and starts. While the military might seem monolithic to outside observers, it has forever been riven by internal struggles as it struggles to adapt to the times. The fact that the Pentagon is still grappling with the new aerial environment is evidenced by the inconsistent nature of the statements it has made over the past week. Shortly after VanHerck spoke to reporters, for instance, another DoD official immediately tried to walk it back, telling Reuters reporter Phil Stewart there was “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent take downs.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Pentagon adapts to its new reality. The U.S. spends nearly $200 billion a year on an Air Force whose frontline technology is so advanced that there are few adversaries it could even be deployed against. If military officials start talking more about drone swarms, low-cost improvised devices, and unconventional surveillance techniques, it will show they’ve begun to adapt. If the Pentagon keeps focusing on hypersonics and nuclear-powered cruise missiles, it will suggest they haven’t grasped what kind of truth is really out there.

Understanding the UFO War