There’s renewed interest in the UFO phenomenon and it’s coming from an unexpected source: the United States Congress.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is looking into a 2004 incident where US Navy pilots flying with the USS Nimitz strike group encountered, chased and filmed fast-moving unidentified objects. Reliable sources say at least two of the military pilots involved have already been interviewed, and a radar operator was subsequently invited to get in touch.
In parallel, the House Armed Services Committee is taking an interest. Records from April show the committee received a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) briefing on the Pentagon’s UFO project, the cryptically-named AATIP. We know so little about AATIP that there’s even dispute over whether the acronym stands for Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program or Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program. The very existence of the project caused a sensation, because until the New York Times broke the story in December 2017, the US government claimed it had not investigated UFOs since the 1960s when sightings were looked at in a study called Project Blue Book.
As noted in the Guardian recently, data from two civilian UFO research organisations show that the number of reported sightings has fallen in recent years. However, there’s no single, global focal point for reports (the Ministry of Defence stopped investigating UFOs in 2009) and statistics will never tell the full story.
It would be better if the phenomenon were assessed and judged not on numbers alone, but by focusing on cases where we have compelling evidence: independently submitted reports from pilots on different flights; visual sightings corroborated by radar; photos and videos regarded as genuinely intriguing by intelligence community imagery analysts. Irrespective of the methodology we use to assess the phenomenon, how can we do so in an even-handed way when the subject has so much pop culture baggage?
A first step in reframing the debate might be changing the language. The term “UFO” has become as obsolete and baggage-laden as the now largely-defunct “flying saucer”. Both are widely, but wrongly, regarded as being synonymous with “extraterrestrial spacecraft”, when self-evidently all the phrase should mean is something in the sky that the observer cannot identify. When the question “do you believe in UFOs?” is misinterpreted as “do you think we’re being visited by aliens?” then we clearly have a problem.
We addressed this in the MoD in the 1990s by replacing “UFO” with “UAP”, for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. It got us increased funding and made a few senior officials take the matter more seriously, because they felt we were looking at a science problem, not a science fiction mystery.
Years later, in 2011, I was one of the briefers at a private gathering in Washington DC, chaired by Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta, who has a longstanding interest in the issue. It was reminiscent of an episode of The X-Files and there was even a former CIA director sitting at the back, playing no part in the discussion, but silently taking notes. I briefed attendees on the MoD’s use of the term “UAP” and the message clearly hit home.
During Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, for which Podesta was the campaign chair, she occasionally discussed UAPs and in one interview on the Jimmy Kimmel show she corrected the host for using the term “UFO”. We have yet to learn what Donald Trump thinks about UAPs, but his enthusiasm for a Space Force has certainly created a few conspiracy theories.
When it comes to UAPs, truth really is stranger than fiction. It turns out that AATIP was largely the brainchild of the then Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and that much of the work was contracted out to Bigelow Aerospace, run by former budget hotel magnate (and believer in extraterrestrial visitation) Robert Bigelow. A 2009 letter from Harry Reid about AATIP reads like science fiction in places.
Now, some of the people formerly involved with the project – including the DIA official who ran it, Luis Elizondo – have joined a Public Benefit Corporation called To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science, fronted by Tom DeLonge, the former vocalist/guitarist and founder of pop punk band Blink-182. Their mission statement talks about creating a consortium “to explore exotic science and technologies … that can change the world”.
If current US Congressional interest evolves into formal hearings, either specifically on AATIP, or on UAPs more generally, I hope they can get past debates about terminology, and avoid getting bogged down in statistical analyses. I have made clear my willingness to testify on the basis that my experience with the MoD might be relevant.
Focusing on the quality of reports and not simply the quantity should result in a far more meaningful assessment of the phenomenon. Irrespective of the outcome, these might turn out to be the most fascinating Congressional hearings in history.
Nick Pope worked at the Ministry of Defence for 21 years. From 1991 to 1994 he was posted to a division where his duties included investigating UAP sightings to determine whether they had any defence significance.