Pentagon UFO report: everything you need to know

A highly anticipated report on the Pentagon’s research into Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), aka UFOs, was released today. It contains some very limited information from the Pentagon’s new UAP task force, which examines unknown objects through a national security lens. The Defense Department said last year it takes “any incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace very seriously…”

The government’s UAP program and the report have spawned a news cycle that has shot UFO conspiracies back into the mainstream. Despite the hype, the report absolutely does not contain proof of aliens. Here’s what we know so far.

When will this Pentagon UFO report come out?

The Senate Intelligence Committee squeezed in a comment within last year’s massive COVID-19 relief bill that asked the Pentagon to cough up classified and unclassified versions of a UAP report in 180 days, or no later than Friday, June 25th.

The nine-page report is now available online.

UAP? Why not say UFO?

They’re basically the same thing. UAP stands for unidentified aerial phenomena, which is a new fancy way of saying unidentified flying objects. Naming a Pentagon program after UFOs would be far too silly for a big, very serious government intelligence program.

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More seriously, putting “objects” in the name could be too limiting of a word for a program that deals with the unknown. Can we really consider them “objects” if we’re only seeing strange shapes through fuzzy camera footage from military aircraft? “Phenomena” would be a bit more accurate. It’s defined as “a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question.”

How did this start?

Depends on how far back you want to go. The US has dabbled in UFO research for decades, and various documents have been made public over the years.

The Air Force had Project Blue Book, which closed in 1969 after investigating more than 12,500 UFO sightings. The CIA dumped a trove of historical UFO records in January, revealing more government attempts to explain unidentified aerial phenomena in the years following Project Blue Book’s end. None of these historical records link any unexplained phenomena to extraterrestrial activity.

The government says it’s generally interested in UAPs / UFOs out of national security concerns. In one statement from August last year, the Defense Department said it takes “any incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace very seriously and examine each report. This includes examinations of incursions that are initially reported as UAP when the observer cannot immediately identify what he or she is observing.”

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Public fascination with UFOs generally dates back to 1947, when an amateur pilot flying his plane near Mount Rainier in Washington state reported sights of nine “saucer-like” objects darting across the sky. His recollection of what he saw spawned a wave of press attention.

But how did the most recent round of UFO… sorry — UAP — discourse start?

It started in 2017, when stories published by The New York Times and Politico confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), a classified Pentagon project that began in 2007 to investigate unidentified phenomena and ended in 2012. Formally established under the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and later transferred to the Defense Department’s headquarters, it was reportedly run primarily by former military intelligence official Luis Elizondo, who has said he resigned in 2017 over what he considered internal opposition to government-funded UAP research.

(It’s worth noting that both the NYT and Politico reports have been criticized as being credulous toward Elizondo’s claims and overly accepting of the remote possibility that UAPs can be attributed to alien activity. A recent Vox article does a good job of laying out some of the surrounding context and is worth a read.)

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AATIP also gathered studies on wild ideas straight out of science fiction, from nuclear propulsion to invisibility cloaking, warp drives, metallic glasses, programmable matter, etc., according to a list of AATIP research products that was sent to Congress in 2019.

Former US Sen. Harry Reid
Photo By Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

According to the Times and Politico reports, AATIP’s initial “black” budget of $22 million — a minuscule amount compared to other Pentagon budgets — was pushed by former Nevada senator and space phenomena enthusiast Harry Reid. Most of that funding reportedly went to a Las Vegas-based space company owned by hotel chain magnate and UFO enthusiast Robert Bigelow, a campaign donor to and longtime friend of Reid. Bigelow told the Times that his company, Bigelow Aerospace, modified storage buildings at its headquarters to make room for mysterious “metal alloys” that were recovered during work on the AATIP contract. Though the Times never attributed the alloys’ origins to aliens, the claim also received criticism. Nothing on these alloys has been revealed since. Bigelow hasn’t talked publicly about them since his interview with the Times, and a Freedom of Information Act request filed to the DIA in early 2018 remains open with no records turned over (yet).

While AATIP is now defunct, it has a successor. In June 2020, the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed the existence of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, situated within the Office of Naval Intelligence. The Pentagon confirmed and announced the task force a few months later, describing in a statement the body’s mission “to detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security.” Last December, the intelligence committee gave the Pentagon six months to produce a report detailing the task force’s findings on UAPs. That’s the one released on June 25th. A more detailed, classified version of the report was delivered to Congress on June 2nd, per a person familiar with it.

What does the report include?

It has always been very unlikely that the Pentagon report would tell us what the objects are, and it still doesn’t sound like US intelligence officials know much about them. It’s as much a mystery as it is a national security concern, it indicated.

The report was only able to confidently confirm the identity of a single UAP out of 144 reports. “In that case,” the report says, “we identified the object as a large, deflating balloon. The others remain unexplained.”

The task force focused on reports from military aviators made between 2004 and 2021, the majority coming out within the past two years, after a new reporting system was put in place. 18 incidents seemed to feature unusual flight patterns. 11 reports from aviators documented “near misses” with a UAP.

From the report: “Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernable means of propulsion. In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings.”

Are there any videos of the UFOs?

Yep, there are four videos — three were declassified and released via the Freedom of Information Act by the Navy in 2020 after being leaked in 2007 and 2017, and one was leaked and later authenticated by the Defense Department in 2019. The videos show four separate incidents. Reid, the former senator and UAP hawk, said disclosure of the three videos “only scratches the surface of research and materials available” to the Pentagon.

The three declassified black-and-white videos, titled FLIR, GOFAST, and GIMBAL, are the most tantalizing. Captured by instrument cameras aboard Navy fighter aircraft in 2004, 2014, and 2015, they appear to show tiny, pill-shaped objects whizzing through the air. One of them appears to rotate midflight. Two videos show the objects speeding over ocean waters, coming with commentary from the pilots: “Look at that thing, dude!” one pilot yells. “It’s rotating,” says another. “There’s a whole fleet of them… They’re all going against the wind.”

What could the UFOs be?

We don’t know yet, and there’s probably not a single explanation for all of them. The report lists five possibilities for what the UAPs could be:

  • Something extremely benign like UAVs, flocks of birds or other “airborne clutter,” like plastic bags, the UAP report said.
  • Top-secret US technology that the Navy and other agencies don’t know about.
  • Foreign technology from US adversaries like Russia or China
  • Some kind of natural phenomena — atmospheric conditions that get picked up on instruments or cause weird illusions.
  • Other — the catch-all term for ‘yeah, we have no idea.’

Intelligence officials ruled out the possibility that the UAPs were glimpses of secret US technology in action, according to the Times report. The unclassified report published Friday said officials were “unable to confirm” that any reported UAPs originated from secret government programs. And it’s worth noting that the UAPs can be any number of those five theories.

But what about aliens?

Aliens would fall pretty firmly into the ‘other’ category, and while the theory has captured the popular imagination, this is the most controversial idea out there.

Mick West, a pseudoscience debunker, told CNN that characteristics of the Naval aircraft videos make the objects appear more interesting than they should be. “It never really does anything interesting, and it might simply be a distant plane,” he said. In a YouTube video, West rebutted the Times’ use of the term “Glowing Auras” in the headline of its 2017 story to describe UAPs recorded on thermal video cameras, which sometimes makes objects look like they’re glowing.

Elizondo, the very vocal former AATIP director, would beg to differ with West’s assessment. He hasn’t claimed UAPs represent alien technology, but his colorful descriptions to the press continue to hype up that prospect: “We’re dealing with a technology that could be 50-1,000 years ahead of us,” he told The Washington Post in a live interview last week. “At the end of the day, we don’t know what we’re dealing with. All options have to be on the table.”

Why is the US struggling to understand these sightings?

The report starts with a caveat: a lack of quality information “hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP.”

Stigmas around UFOs have had a chilling effect on legitimate discussions about unidentified phenomena in the US military, the report indicated, citing “sociocultural stigmas” and rifts between analysts and aviators. “Narratives from aviators in the operational community and analysts from the military and IC [intelligence community] describe disparagement associated with observing UAP, reporting it, or attempting to discuss it with colleagues,” the report said. Reporting unidentifiable phenomena is a “reputational risk” that “may keep many observers silent, complicating scientific pursuit of the topic.”

The report also noted that cameras aboard military aircraft are specialized for tactical operations and aren’t suited for capturing the unidentifiable phenomena, hampering analysts’ ability to study sightings after-the-fact. Having multiple sensors and cameras have their perks, especially when working together during a run-in with something unknown — radio-frequency sensors are good at capturing the velocity of an object, while cameras can reveal an object’s size, the report said. But absent those capabilities, analysis of UAP is difficult.

Is Blink-182 involved?

Not exactly. But Blink-182’s former lead singer, Tom DeLonge, is. DeLonge is obsessed with UFOs. Don’t even get him started on UFOs, he warns in this undated interview on UFOs.

DeLonge is so obsessed with unidentified phenomena that he left his punk-rock band bank in 2015 to start an organization in 2017 called To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences (TTSA), a research and media company based in Las Vegas — yes, the same city as Bigelow’s space company. TTSA is relevant because it’s where Elizondo and Chris Mellon, former Democratic staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence, wound up after leaving their government posts. The company pushed for and promoted the release of the three Navy videos and actually worked with Bigelow and various government agencies to investigate UAP. The organization signed an agreement with the US Army in 2019 to study “exotic metals” recovered under the program.

But TTSA ran into problems during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Elizondo and Mellon left the company earlier this year, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing from February. “TTSA has decided to restructure its operations to scale back its initiatives in science and tech commercialization and to place a greater emphasis on the operations of its entertainment business,” the filing said. It’s unclear what came of the Army agreement after TTSA’s shift away from UAP research.

But come on… it’s aliens, right?

Probably not. The slow drip of news from the Pentagon on UAPs has allowed a ton of alien hype to fester. Does that mean aliens don’t exist anywhere in the universe? No. There are multiple ongoing projects to look for alien life, or signs of past alien life, well beyond UFOs. To name a few: NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, a joint academic hunt for technosignatures coming from distant corners of the universe, or any of the hundreds of research programs examining exoplanets.

While an outcome involving aliens might be fun, it’s still hasn’t happened in today’s UAP saga.

Update 6:11 PM 6/25: This story has been updated with details from the unclassified UAP report.