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What Can We Expect From the Pentagon’s UFO Report?

Photo-Illustration: Joe McBride/Getty Images

One of the many curiosities packed into the $2.3 billion 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 report — which comes after a slow, four-year drip of reporting and government admissions on UFO sightings — could be delivered to Congress any day now. Regardless of what’s in it, the release will be the most direct and substantive U.S. government account of what officials call unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) ever made public. Below is a guide for those who want to believe — or at least understand what to expect from the Pentagon’s unprecedented act of transparency.

What does an early look at the report reveal?

On June 3, the New York Times reported that senior administration officials who were briefed on the UAP report had found no evidence that the objects seen by Navy pilots over the past decade are not of this Earth. Nevertheless, the Times states intelligence officials “still cannot explain the unusual movements that have mystified scientists and the military.”

According to the Times, the report also finds that the “vast majority” of 120 incidents analyzed did not involve U.S. military or government technology, which appears to “eliminate the possibility that Navy pilots who reported seeing unexplained aircraft might have encountered programs the government meant to keep secret.” Unfortunately for those hoping that the report will reveal a bounty of new information, the ruling out of U.S. technology “is about the only conclusive finding in the classified intelligence report.” A senior official briefed on the intelligence told the Times “without hesitation” that U.S. officials knew the technology was not American.

What could the report contain?

The legislation passed in December 2020 stipulates that the report must include “detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena data and intelligence” collected by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. (This is a program the Department of Defense created last summer to “detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security.”) It goes on to call for “a detailed description of an interagency process” for how such data will be collected and analyzed going forward, and recommendations for further UFO research and funding.

The report will likely provide details on several UFO sightings by Navy pilots that were reported in the New York Times in 2017, and later declassified by the Pentagon. While the pilots were shocked by the contours of the aircraft — often referred to as Tic-Tac or cigar-shaped — most alarming were the high velocities and immediate stops, with no apparent propulsion systems identified.

Further details on the report’s contents are scant. In March, former director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe offered some hints in a Fox News interview, saying it would describe events from “all over the world,” and that “there are a lot more sightings than have been made public.” As for what constitutes a sighting, Ratcliffe said, “we’re talking about objects that have been seen by Navy or Air Force pilots or have been picked up by satellite imagery that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain.”

Earlier this month, former Navy pilot Lieutenant Ryan Graves told 60 Minutes that he was “worried” about the objects that he says training pilots saw “every day for at least a couple years” off the eastern seaboard. “You know, if these were tactical jets from another country that were hanging out up there, it would be a massive issue. But because it looks slightly different, we’re not willing to actually look at the problem in the face. We’re happy to just ignore the fact that these are out there, watching us every day.” Graves claims that his squadron of super hornet fighter planes began to see UFOs over restricted airspace in Virginia just after they updated their jets’ radar system in 2014, allowing them to zero-in on a target with infrared cameras.

The law ordering the report says it must address whether these incidents pose any potential national security threat, and whether they may be “attributed to one or more foreign adversaries”; more specifically, whether there’s any indication that “a potential adversary may have achieved breakthrough aerospace capabilities that could put United States strategic or conventional forces at risk.”

If the objects are, let’s say, next-generation planes or drones from China, it would certainly validate those who pushed for the report’s release, and modernizing the government’s approach to UFOs — even if that conclusion is more boring than the possibility of a presence from beyond our solar system.

Why is this coming out now?

Americans have, of course, 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.” At the time, Marco Rubio was the chair of the Committee, so he will deliver the report when it is ready.

When exactly will the report be made public?

The legislation President Trump signed on December 27 said intelligence officials should submit their report within 180 days, which would fall in late June. But as the Washington Post reported, it may not arrive on time:

Two factors might delay the report’s release: Agencies have missed similar congressional reporting deadlines in the past; and the provision is not technically binding, as the language was included in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the bill, not the bill itself.


“In other words, it isn’t statute, but the agencies/departments generally treat report language as bill language,” said one senior Senate aide familiar with the legislation.

Since the Senate Intelligence Committee called for an unclassified analysis, the report should eventually be available for all Americans to see. (A representative for committee chairman Mark Warner’s office could not provide an answer on how long the delay might be between the report’s delivery to the Committee and its release to the general public.) However, the legislation states that the report “may include a classified annex,” which could frustrate amateur UFO enthusiasts.

What do skeptics say about the Pentagon’s UFO report?

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.

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.”

What Can We Expect From the Pentagon’s UFO Report?