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What’s Inside the Pentagon’s Long-Awaited UFO Report

Photo-Illustration: Joe McBride/Getty Images

One of the many curiosities packed into the $2.3 trillion omnibus spending and coronavirus-relief package passed by Congress in December was a stipulation requiring the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to deliver an unclassified report on unidentified flying objects to Congress within six months, compiling what the government knows about about UFOs rocketing around over American airspace. The long-awaited first report was finally released on Friday, and though only nine pages, represents the most direct and substantive U.S. government account of of what officials call unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) ever made public. Below is a guide to what the report contains for those who want to believe — or at least understand what there is to learn from this unprecedented act of transparency from the Pentagon.

What information is the report based on?

The Pentagon task force’s preliminary assessment is based on the review of 144 UAP reports involving observations made by military aviators between 2004 and 2021, but mostly from the last two years. The task force also considered but opted not to focus on “a range of information on UAP described in U.S. military and IC (Intelligence Community) reporting,” since it “lacked sufficient specificity.”

Of the 144 reports, the task force could only determine an explanation for one (a deflated balloon). The rest remain unexplained.

In a total of 18 events, witnesses “reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics” — potentially demonstrating advanced, as-of-yet unknown technological capabilities. Per the report, that unusual behavior included UAP/EFOs, which “appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion.” The report also notes that “in a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio-frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings.”

In 11 instances, U.S. aviators reported dangerous “near misses” with UAP.

What does the report conclude?

Not much, at least regarding what these objects actually were or where they might have come from. The assessment says that the lack of “high-quality reporting” on the events “hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP.” In other words, they still don’t know what the UAP were, though the report suggests a range of possible explanations.

While the assessment says that available reporting on UAP is “largely inconclusive,” it nonetheless concludes:

  • There is currently no evidence that any of the objects are related to a secret U.S. weapons program or were developed by foreign adversaries.
  • The clustering of sightings near U.S. military bases may just be the result of several kinds of collection bias.
  • Most of the UAP probably were physical objects, since most were detected in multiple ways, including via “radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.” In addition, there are probably multiple types of UAP.
  • Objects exhibiting unusual flight characteristics (like the ones which appeared to demonstrate advanced technological capabilities) could also “be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception” and “require additional rigorous analysis.”
  • Regarding whether or not these objects represent a threat, the report says that UAP “clearly pose” a risk to flight safety in the increasingly crowded skies, and “may pose a challenge” to national security, particularly if the UAP were developed by foreign adversaries and indicate “a potential adversary has developed either a breakthrough or disruptive technology.”
  • The U.S. needs to collect and analyze more information, consolidate reporting, develop a more efficient way of screening and processing the reports.

What does the report say about aliens?

Nothing. The report makes no mention of extraterrestrial life and never even implies that any of the reported UAP could be of extraterrestrial origin. That doesn’t mean the task force has ruled that possibility out, however.

The report lists five possible explanations for UAP

While the report does not offer much in the way of explanation for the objects, it offers five categories of possible explanations:

  • Airborne clutter, including birds, balloons, drones, or airborne debris.
  • Natural atmospheric phenomena, including “ice crystals, moisture, and thermal fluctuations that may register on some infrared and radar systems.”
  • U.S.-developed technology, i.e., classified technology developed by the U.S. or its industry partners.
  • Technology developed by foreign adversaries (on Earth), like Russia, China, or other government or non-government entities.
  • Other, a catchall for encounters where there isn’t enough information to determine categorization (which could include UAP of extraterrestrial origin).

Why is this report coming out now?

Americans have long been fascinated by questions about what their government knows about UFOs, but several recent developments have driven lawmakers to push for more transparency. The issue gained momentum in December 2017, when the New York Times reported on a $22 million Department of Defense program established in 2007 and championed by Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate majority leader. Known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, it was designed to examine military encounters with UAPs. (The story would have shaken the American public to its core in the UFO-obsessed 1990s, but barely rose above the din of daily news coverage in the first chaotic year of the Trump administration.)

Over the next few years, lawmakers and Defense officials began to take interest as more Navy pilots shared their accounts of frequent run-ins with UFOs, and several videos of the encounters were released. By June 2019, senators were reportedly “coming out of the woodwork” to be briefed on the phenomena, which resulted in a vote by the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2020 that first green-lit the idea for a UFO report. A provision — which set the six-month timeline and added some additional funding for the project — was tucked into the Intelligence Authorization Act for the 2021 fiscal year, which passed as part of the December stimulus package.

As the senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote last year, they were “concerned that there is no unified, comprehensive process within the federal government for collecting and analyzing intelligence on unidentified aerial phenomena, despite the potential threat.”

What did skeptics have to say about the Pentagon’s UFO report ahead of its release?

Science writer Mick West is generally considered the leading voice of the group asserting that the UFOs spotted by the military are likely technology we already understand. In an appearance on CNN last month, he summarized his argument: The images we see in the military UAP videos could easily be the result of mis-calibrated instruments or various camera distortions. While West thinks the videos released so far “can all be explained,” he does support further research on the subject.

“If pilots are reporting things that they can’t identify, then yes we need to figure out what’s going wrong there,” he said. “Is it something new or is it some failure of the system? Is it a failure of personnel or technology? Let’s figure that out.”

In a recent and exceptionally long story in The New Yorker detailing the history of the movement to take UFOs seriously, a former Pentagon official pushed back on West’s skepticism, saying that he “doesn’t have the whole story. There’s data he will never see — there’s much more that I would include in a classified environment.” (Of course, that argument isn’t very satisfying for those of us who will never have access to classified UFO data.)

On the left, a non-scientific reason for UAP skepticism has emerged: Perhaps after wasting over $1.6 trillion on the disastrous F-35, spending over $2.26 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, and facing a flat budget for 2021, the Pentagon simply wants a flashy reason to demand more money.

Shortly after the report’s release, New York’s Jeff Wise examined another potential explanation: electromagnetic warfare.

For many, aerial objects moving in impossible ways immediately brings to mind alien visitors. But for those working in the electronic warfare industry, strangely manifesting phenomena are their stock-in-trade. The field is tasked with the detection of adversaries across the electromagnetic spectrum, from visual light to infrared and radar, as well as manipulating signals so that your forces are not detected by the enemy. “By radiating electromagnetic energy, one can deny, deceive, disrupt, delay or deceive that energy to confuse an observer about what you’re doing,” says Glenn “Powder” Carlson, president of the Old Crows Association, the EW professional organization.

Where do recent presidents stand on UFOs?

President Joe Biden has successfully dodged recent attempts to get him to weigh in on unidentified aerial phenomena. “President Obama says there is footage and records of objects in the sky … and he says we don’t know exactly what they are — what do you think?” a reporter asked the president at a May 21 press conference. Biden deflected, saying “I would ask him again,” before smiling and leaving the podium.

Since leaving office, Obama has been more open about his interest in the topic. Days before the question to Biden, the ex-president appeared on The Late Late Show With James Corden, where the show’s music director, Reggie Watts, asked him about his theories on the paranormal. “When it comes to aliens, there are some things I just can’t tell you on-air,” Obama quipped.

“Look, the truth is, when I came into office, I asked, ‘Is there the lab somewhere we’re keeping the alien specimens and spaceship?’ They did a little bit of research and the answer was no,” Obama continued. “But what is true — and I’m actually being serious — is that there’s footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory, they did not have an easily explainable pattern. I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is. But I have nothing to report to you today.”

For his part, Donald Trump never took UFOs all that seriously while in office. In the few instances when he commented on the matter, he usually deflected, promising to “take a good, strong look” at the matter, and telling George Stephanopoulos that if there was any evidence of aliens, “you’ll be the first to know.”

So what’s next?

The report also dictates that another report will be delivered by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense within 90 days, informing Congress on how best to update data collection on UFOs. According to the New York Times, “officials said they would provide lawmakers with periodical updates beyond that.”