The U.S. military is growing concerned about UFOs. Should we worry?
Trying to make sense of a subject rife with nonsense
The discussion around Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)—what used to be known as UFOs—has reentered the zeitgeist over the last few years, with high profile stories in The New York Times and 60 Minutes. But mainstream journalism typically leaves the topic at “more questions than answers,” while the internet is full of matter-of-fact bullshit. This leads reasonable people to simply avoid the subject.
If the UAP story has any substance, it’s important to engage with it. Even mundane explanations may have profound implications for geopolitics, warfare, and aerospace technology. So let’s explore what exactly we know, how we know it, and how confident we can be.
Science and History
Before we dig into a topic this contentious, it’s important to take a detour into epistemology. Given a specific set of evidence, what conclusions should we draw?
The gold standard for knowledge is reproducible science. I can describe an experimental setup, and anyone else can verify my findings. Sadly, no matter how many people take up the title of “ufologist,” there’s no science to be found here. There’s no experiment you can do to validate or falsify UAP-related claims.
UAP study is better thought of as an historical discipline. It mainly consists of looking at documents, understanding their context, and judging their veracity. You need to constellate people and events into a coherent narrative, using the words of unreliable narrators. These include politicians, government officials, military personnel, and average citizens.
Keep all this in mind as we dig into specific claims.
The Importance of Priors
A lot of UAP discussion involves speculation about their origin. Is it aliens? Weather balloons? Another government? Swamp gas? An ancient reptilian race hidden underground that has surpassed us technologically and also wears humans as skin suits?
Mostly the discussion boils down to “something supernatural” vs. “something mundane.” Those who think life evolves easily tend to fall in the former camp. Those who think it’s a rare, one-in-a-bajillion fluke tend to fall in the later camp. The problem is, our dataset has only a single datum—the human race—from which we can infer pretty much nothing about the prevalence of life in the universe.
Your belief here is an untested assumption, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum. And it makes a huge difference to what the universe looks like! Is it mostly just fireballs and inert rocks, or is there a huge spectrum of biological squishiness between them? No one knows!
It’s also important to realize that when it comes to studying history, it’s very easy to cherry-pick evidence that supports your worldview. Every source is potentially unreliable, so we can simply write off evidence that contradicts our narrative.
Most people with an interest in UAP fall into one of two camps:
Starry-eyed believers, who lap up every shaky video of some lights in the sky
Hard-core skeptics, who want to gawk how stupid and gullible other people are
The former group is problematic, as they tend to destroy the quality of any relevant discussion with wild theories and awful evidence. But the latter group is just as harmful—they tend to shut down and even stigmatize serious discussion.
Again, as we go through this list, check your bias, and watch how it guides your interpretation of facts.
OK, with all that out of the way, let’s look at some primary and secondary sources, ranked roughly by trustworthiness.
(Note that this list will be very America-centric. Other countries (e.g. France, Brazil) have some good transparency and national discussion, but I’m not able to read the primary sources or get a sense for the credibility of the people involved.)
I know, I said I’d start with the most trustworthy sources. But here we are.
I’m starting with politicians because they’re household names. The list below includes representation from both sides of the aisle, and the average reader is likely to find someone they trust.
I also like citing politicians because, in discussing UAP, they have little to gain (they’re already famous, UAP are not a wedge issue) and much to lose (looking foolish). And they have access to far more information than the general public, especially former presidents and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Here are a few quotes:
There is footage and records of objects in the skies. 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.
— Barack Obama, former U.S. President
We have things flying over our military bases and places where we’re conducting military exercises and we don't know what it is and it isn't ours...
— Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee
…we're going to stand by the service members who documented this stuff. They have video. They have radar. They have heat sensors. They have everything.
— Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator, Committee on Armed Services
Well I don't believe they are coming from foreign adversaries. Why if there were that would suggest they have a technology that is in a whole different sphere than anything we understand, and frankly China and Russia just aren't there, and neither are we by the way...
— Mitt Romney, U.S. Senator
There is something there measurable by multiple instruments, yet it seems to move in directions that are inconsistent with what we know of physics or science more broadly.
— Adam Schiff, U.S. Congressman, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee
I believe that there is information uncovered by the government’s covert investigations into unidentified aerial phenomena that can be disclosed to the public without harming our national security.
— Harry Reid, Former U.S. Senator
To summarize the above, if we were to take each of them at their word:
They cluster around U.S. military bases
They do not belong to the U.S. or a foreign military
They are extremely technologically advanced
The government knows more than we do
How much should we trust these statements? I wouldn’t put truth-stretching past any of them, or outright lying past some of them. But I don’t see the motivation here. The bigger issue is that none of them are experts in any relevant field.
I’m sure they have Very Good People feeding them information and analysis, but we can’t take any of this as gospel. All we can conclude is that a reasonable, intelligent person with top-level access to information can come to believe some incredible things. (Not to imply that all of them are reasonable, intelligent people.)
The U.S. Military
I’m not sure where to rank the U.S. military in terms of trustworthiness. But this is our most reliable primary source—every other encounter is reported by civilians, who often turn out to be delusional or attention-seeking.
It’s possible the military has some hidden motivation for duping the public, but I can’t really come up with a coherent narrative here. More funding maybe?
The military has acknowledged three high-profile incidents, and released a congressional report summarizing dozens of others.
Congressional Report (2021)
In June 2021, the Pentagon released a report to congress detailing 144 reports of encounters between the U.S. military and UAPs over 17 years, 80 of which involved observations from multiple sensors. Of these, 21 reports (covering 18 unique incidents) describe “unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics”:
Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion. In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings. The [UAP Task Force] holds a small amount of data that appear to show UAP demonstrating acceleration or a degree of signature management.
The report states that these incidents likely lack a single cause, and is quick to offer a list of possible mundane explanations, including:
Airborne clutter, like balloons and drones
Atmospheric phenomena, like ice crystals or temperature fluctuations messing with sensors
Secret government or industry technology programs
Foreign adversaries, specifically mentioning China and Russia
But, given that they were only able to explain one of the 144 incidents (it was a deflating balloon), the report acknowledges that “we may require additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze and characterize some of them.”
This stops well short of saying “it’s aliens,” but is still a shocking admission of ignorance. They’re saying some cases are hard to blame on bad sensors and inadequate data: we may literally need new science to explain what we’re seeing.
The Nimitz Encounter (2004)
The most compelling case is the Nimitz case…you have so many witnesses and so many sensors…there is a lot of different information from a lot of different sources and the thing is, it is all perfectly congruent. It all hangs together. No one is contradicting someone else's story.
— Christopher Mellon, Dep. Asst. Secretary of Defense for Intelligence
The Nimitz encounter took place in 2004 off the coast of southern California. Four separate eye witnesses—two pilots and two weapons systems operators—all saw a 12-meter tic-tac shaped object moving in strange patterns. One pilot claims it “mirrored” his trajectory as he spiraled down to get a closer look. A fifth pilot managed to record the object with an advanced infrared camera.
This incident is the most credible on record, because it corroborates the testimony of several credible witnesses with high-quality sensor data.
(Fun fact: this is the only one of the three videos that doesn’t have a ridiculous voiceover that includes the words “dude” or “bro”—despite being the only one filmed in California.)
The Gimbal (2015)
The Gimbal encounter was recorded by fighter pilots in 2015. It shows an object hovering and then rotating in a way that’s hard to explain technologically.
This video has been allegedly debunked in two different ways:
As a visual artifact from a jet engine turning away from the camera
As an illusion created by the camera’s own rotation
This video was captured in 2015 by a fighter pilot off the coast of Florida, and ostensibly shows an object moving at incredible speeds.
This one is typically debunked as a parallax effect.
What should we make of these videos? The military personnel involved clearly thought something important was happening (“look at that thing bro!”) and there’s enough here that the Pentagon took it seriously. Lt. Ryan Graves points out that the Navy has additional classified radar data for these incidents.
But in agreement with the Pentagon’s report, skeptics—mainly Mick West, a “skeptical investigator”—point out that there are plenty of mundane explanations for these videos, including equipment error or optical illusion. West suggests the third video might be a bird, and did a great breakdown of all the best skepticism here.
While West’s analysis comes off as sober and reasonable, some of the mundane explanations seem just as preposterous as the supernatural ones—you’d think the Navy would have seen a bird before. But at the end of the day, these videos are just pixels on a screen. There’s only so much we can infer from them.
Former Intelligence Officials
In addition to the reports openly and officially acknowledged by the military, several individual officials have come forward with more information, often calling themselves “whistleblowers.”
These individuals vary in credibility, and their stories generate enough fame and attention to motivate exaggeration or lies. But they may give us a bit more of a window into what’s going on behind the military’s classified walls.
(There are dozens of individual military members, not listed here, who have gone on the record about their encounters with UAPs. UAP.guide has collected a handful of their stories.)
J. Allen Hynek
J. Allen Hynek was an astrophysicist hired by the Air Force to investigate UFOs back in 1947 (around the beginning of modern UAP interest, and the same year as the alleged Roswell crash). He came up with the “close encounters” framework that inspired Steven Spielberg.
Hynek was initially a skeptic, saying “the whole subject seems utterly ridiculous.” But after collecting enough reports from credible witnesses—especially military personnel—Hynek changed his tune. He began to vouch for the inexplicable nature of certain events he was asked to investigate, often in disagreement with the Air Force.
Hynek remained scientific in his overall attitude, refusing to make an affirmative statement which he couldn’t back up with quantitative evidence. But he conjectured that UAP might have origins in extraterrestrial or extradimensional intelligence, saying “there is sufficient evidence to defend both."
Christopher Mellon has served in high-ranking defense-related positions in both the Clinton and (George W.) Bush administrations, as well as Staff Director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
In 2016, twelve years after stepping out of public life, Mellon went on the record to talk about UAPs (then UFOs). While he spoke mostly credulously, he also denied that the government has any special knowledge, stating “I highly doubt DoD or any other government agency is concealing UFO information.”
Mellon contends that, given his access to secret US government programs and intel on its adversaries, he is fairly certain UAP technology is not of human origin:
I served on the special access program oversight committee so I had access to all the black programs in those days. We know perfectly well there is nothing like that behind the scenes or even on the drawing boards.
We monitor the Chinese and Russians very closely, very carefully. We spend I think the unclassified figure is $70 billion per year on intelligence programs. And it would be very surprising, and stunning, if they had independently developed technology that was that far ahead of everything else and everyone else, somehow secretly. It doesn't seem likely and we don't think that's the case. More likely something else.
In 2021, five years after his initial interview, he starts to get a little conspiratorial, supposing there might be deep-state-esqe programs with more information:
If there is some recovered debris say, it is so deeply buried and squirreled away that it's outside of those normal oversight processes and that's why there is a problem in this area.
Luis Elizondo is the former head of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), a relatively small, short-lived program studying UAP-related threats (total budget $22M over 5 years). He is a self-described “whistleblower,” who resigned from his position at AATIP due to “bureaucratic challenges and inflexible mindsets.” We have him to thank for leaking the three videos above (two years prior to their official release by the DoD).
In a strange drama, he was disavowed by the Pentagon, with a spokesperson stating “Mr. Elizondo had no responsibilities with regard to the AATIP program,” only for Senator Harry Reid to step in and affirm “I can state as a matter of record Lue Elizondo's involvement and leadership role in this program.”
In his post-military career, Elizondo has established himself as the UFO celebrity, appearing regularly in mainstream newspapers, cable news, and UFO-related podcasts. He has made a number of claims, including:
UAP are non-human technology
Specific claims about technological ability
“600 to 700 g-forces”
speeds of “13,000 miles an hour”
the ability to “fly through air and water and possibly space”
“no obvious signs of propulsion, no wings, no control surfaces, and yet still can defy the natural effects of earth's gravity”
The US government is in possession of UFO debris
UAP might be “extra hyper dimensional.” (Mind you, “not in the woo-woo sense…in a quantum physics sense.” In case you had doubts.)
Haim Eshed is by far the most bizarre former official to come forward with allegations about UAP. He was a member of the Israel Defense Ministry for 30 years, directing its space programs, and is generally considered the father of Israel's space program.
In 2020, at the age of 87, Eshed claimed that the US had been in contact with the “Galactic Federation” for years, cooperating in a joint underground base on Mars.
Researchers and “Researchers”
These folks are ordinary citizens (i.e. with no special access to classified information) who have taken up the study of UAPs. We can trust them insofar as we believe they are intelligent, rational, and dispassionate—which none of them are entirely.
Jacques Vallée has an impressive resume: he worked for NASA, creating the first digital map of Mars; on ARPANET, an internet precursor; and later as a staff engineer at SRI for Douglas Engelbart, of “Mother of all Demos” fame.
Alongside his storied career in technology, Vallée doggedly pursued UAP-related stories, traveling around the world to speak with witnesses and examine evidence. He has published a dozen books on the subject as well as papers in the (not entirely scientific) Journal for Scientific Exploration.
Vallée was an early advocate for the extraterrestrial hypothesis, but has since moved towards the interdimensional hypothesis.
John Mack was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and the head of Harvard Medical School’s psychiatry department. After establishing himself as a world expert in addiction and teen suicide, he began to study the psychology of alien abduction experiences.
Mack initially suspected psychosis or mental illness to be at the root of abduction reports, but struggled to diagnose those he came in contact with. He focused heavily on the psychological effects of abduction experiences, including a heightened sense of spirituality and deep concern for the environment.
Mack never quite came to a solid conclusion on the nature of these experiences or the UAP reports that surrounded them, but did take them quite seriously.
Avi Loeb and The Galileo Project
Avi Loeb is a Harvard astrophysicist who made headlines when he claimed that the interstellar ʻOumuamua object was potentially extraterrestrial technology.
He has since founded The Galileo Project, which will search for physical objects associated with extraterrestrial technology. Both Mellon and Elizondo have joined on.
Tom DeLonge and To the Stars Academy
Tom DeLonge is the former frontman for Blink-182, and a lifelong enthusiast of conspiracy theories, UFOs, and bigfoot.
He founded To the Stars, Inc in 2015, which has since evolved into To the Stars Academy (TTSA). The website might make you think they’re a t-shirt company, but the advisory board includes multiple former DoD, CIA, and NASA personnel, including Elizondo for a time.
They claim to be in possession of “potentially exotic materials” and are running aerospace research projects, with a budget in the tens of millions.
What can we make of all this? I’d hate to end this article with the phrase “more questions than answers.”
The wisdom of the crowd might help us a bit here: I’ve found three Metaculus surveys on the subject:
Before 2030, will mainstream news media report that alien technology has visited our solar system? 1% probability
Will alien technosignatures be detected before 2050? 5% probability
By 2100, will 2 national space agencies conclude that an interstellar object in our solar system has a non-human artificial origin? 9% probability
The fact that the probability grows with the time horizon tells us that some portion of the Metaculus community takes the extraterrestrial hypothesis seriously. But clearly few expect anything conclusive within our lifetimes.
As I see it, there are basically two possibilities:
There is a society of technologically advanced individuals on earth, whether human, alien, or something else.
Each individual UAP encounter has some mundane explanation, and a large chunk of humanity has projected fantastical ideas onto them, to the point of full-blown hallucinations.
While the first possibility is obviously more intriguing, it’s impossible to explore without venturing into the realm of Science Fiction—you’d be better off reading a novel than a blog post.
But to me, the second possibility is equally fascinating. Mick West and his acolytes might write it off as “just” another mass delusion, but some see it as the natural formation of a new religion. I hope to write more about the mythological aspects of UAPs in a future post.
Credit to the folks at uap.guide for compiling a high-quality set of sources and information.