How to Decipher the Pentagon’s UFO Report

The crucial, missing context for what military pilots might actually be seeing.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In the early 1960s, Cuban radar operators witnessed a strange phenomenon: Peering at their screens, they could see targets screaming toward their airspace at tremendous velocity. But when fighter planes were launched to intercept them, the targets simply vanished. The elusive craft showing up on their screens appeared to be the product of hyperadvanced technology — perhaps, even, an advanced civilization from another planet.

But what the Cubans were seeing was not alien technology. It was the result of human, and specifically American, technology — something called electromagnetic warfare, or EW. Knowing what EW is all about is crucial for putting into context the report released last week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Entitled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” the document had been eagerly anticipated by those who hoped it would finally provide definitive official evidence that UFOs are real. While those hopes didn’t pan out, the report was nevertheless revealing, if given a close reading.

A tight six pages in length, the document tallies 144 incidents reported by U.S. government sources, most of them in the Navy, since 2004. Of that total, 18 events involved unknown aircraft that showed “unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics,” such as appearing “to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion.”

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 Association of Old Crows, the EW professional organization.

The field traces its beginnings to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, when both sides interfered in the other’s wireless telegraphy. But EW really took off in World War II with the invention of radar, which works by beaming microwave energy at inbound enemy planes and detecting the reflected echo. Almost as soon as radar became operational, both sides started figuring out countermeasures.

“Early electronic countermeasures, called ‘jamming,’ involved putting out so much noise at the frequency of the radar that the real target was obscured,” says former Air Force test pilot Thomas Tilden. “Or you could drop lots of ‘chaff’ [tiny metal strips] to flood the radar with returns.”

As technology advanced, the number of countermeasure techniques multiplied, which then spurred counter-countermeasures. “It’s an ongoing chess game,” Carlson says. “As soon as you make a move, somebody will make a counter-move or countermeasure.”

One advance was to build aircraft in certain shapes, out of particular materials, so that they reflect very little radar energy back to the sender. Stealthy F-35 and F-22 fighters do this, as do the Chinese J-20 and the Russian Su-57. Another trick is to record an enemy radar’s electromagnetic pulses and then play it back with delays, to make it seem like an aircraft is further away, or with a shifted frequency, so it appears to be traveling at a different velocity. It was this kind of trick, called Doppler spoofing, that enabled the U.S. to baffle Cuban air-defense personnel.

The new ODNI report doesn’t provide any details on individual UAP events, so it’s impossible to independently weigh underlying causes. But among the incidents it tallies is presumably a 2014 event that has previously been described by the New York Times. At the time, pilots from a Navy squadron operating out of Virginia repeatedly detected strange targets on their newly updated radar systems. The objects appeared to drop abruptly from 30,000 feet to sea level, slow down, and accelerate to hypersonic speeds. In one incident, one of the pilots, Lieutenant Danny Accoin, turned to intercept one such target, but when he flew underneath its supposed location there was nothing to be seen.

It’s possible that strange observations like this are a result of extraterrestrial activity, but what’s more worrying to the Pentagon is the possibility that one of its potential adversaries stole a march on America’s EW capabilities. The U.S. has long been at the technical forefront of electronic warfare, but there are no guarantees that that will continue to be the case. As electronics and data processing have become vastly more sophisticated, they have also become more widely available. Adversary nations like China and Russia have their own systems, and so do smaller nations such as Israel, Turkey, and Iran.

As last week’s report put it, “UAP would … represent a national security challenge if they are foreign adversary collection platforms or provide evidence a potential adversary has developed either a breakthrough or disruptive technology.”

Also concerning is the possibility that the sophisticated software running on American detector systems might conceal bugs or glitches. In the olden days, a radar operator’s display showed the actual strength of the signal being returned. Today’s systems electronically filter and enhance the data to make it more useful. But that processing creates the possibility that information could be missed or created erroneously. Similarly, if your countermeasures make incorrect assumptions about your opponent’s equipment, that too could lead to errors.

“If you know the logic of your opponent’s sensor, you design measures to defeat that logic,” says Tilden. “The concern when we test is whether we have tested against the actual logic to be encountered with an enemy or we have only tested against our own computers. As our measures and countermeasures and counter-countermeasures get more complex, there is always the chance of a programming error, which can lead to unexpected events.”

So just as Silicon Valley requires beta testers to report bugs in new software so they can be ironed out, the military needs its EW users to report malfunctions in order to make its equipment fully effective. That being the case, it would be a real problem if flight crews saw strange phenomena on their screens but failed to report the incidents because they worried about being laughed at.

The ODNI report notes, “Sociocultural stigmas and sensor limitations remain obstacles to collecting data on UAP… Narratives from aviators in the operational community and analysts from the military and IC describe disparagement associated with observing UAP, reporting it, or attempting to discuss it with colleagues.”

By opening up discussion of mysterious aeronautical encounters to the general public, even to the extent of endorsing the idea that alien UFOs are real, the military hopes to encourage the regular reporting of potentially worrisome anomalies. “One of the reasons we’re so open is we want the aviators to give us the feedback, to provide the data that we need to look at this objectively,” says Navy spokesman Joseph Gradisher. “The more data you have, the better you are to analyze it and turn that data into information into knowledge.”

To Jonas Peter Akins, who served as an intelligence officer aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise in the ‘00s, a main takeaway from the military’s UAP initiative is that it’s bringing all branches of the military into a single, standardized approach to the problem. “The services fly different jets, with different sensors, often built by different contractors,” he says. That means that anomalies will tend to manifest differently depending on who’s looking at them. “Making sure that there’s a consistent form for reporting these encounters requires some sort of standardization that has to happen at not the service level, but at the Department of Defense level,” Akins says.

If the Pentagon is essentially stoking the public’s belief in UFOs in order to encourage reporting of electronic warfare attacks or sensor glitches, then that raises the question: Why didn’t it just tell everyone that what it’s really concerned about is gaps in its electronic warfare capabilities?

Akins has a theory. “One of the great difficulties of a large, multimillion-person organization is admitting that you don’t know what the hell is going on without undermining morale,” he says. “There’s probably a little bit of, ‘We need to get our house in order, but we don’t want to admit that our house isn’t in order.’”

How to Decipher the Pentagon’s UFO Report