The US intelligence community on Friday released its long-awaited report on what it knows about a series of mysterious flying objects that have been seen moving through restricted military airspace over the last several decades.
In short, the answer, according to Friday’s report, is very little, but the intelligence community’s release of the unclassified document marks one of the first times the US government has publicly acknowledged that these strange aerial sightings by Navy pilots and others are worthy of legitimate scrutiny.
The report examined 144 reports of what the government terms “unidentified aerial phenomenon” — only one of which investigators were able to explain by the end of the study. Investigators found no evidence that the sightings represented either extraterrestrial life or a major technological advancement by a foreign adversary like Russia or China, but acknowledge that is a possible explanation.
“We were able to identify one reported UAP with high confidence. In that case, we identified the object as a large, deflating balloon. The others remain unexplained,” the report says, using the Pentagon’s terminology for UFOs.
“Of the 144 reports we are dealing with here, we have no clear indications that there is any non-terrestrial explanation for them — but we will go wherever the data takes us,” a senior US official said.
But investigators were also convinced that the majority of the sightings were “physical objects,” the official told reporters on Friday.
“We absolutely do believe what we’re seeing are not simply sensor artifacts. These are things that physically exist,” the official said, noting that 80 of the reported incidents included data from multiple sensors. In 11 cases, pilots reported a “near-miss” collision with these strange objects.
Investigators stymied by ‘unusual flight characteristics’
Still, the nine-page report makes clear that more work must be done to identify these objects as “the limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP.”
Investigators were particularly stymied by a limited number of incidents where UFOs reportedly appeared to exhibit “unusual flight characteristics,” according to the report, which notes these observations “could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis.”
“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,” it says.
But despite that challenge, the report does conclude that these objects “clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to US national security.
“Safety concerns primarily center on aviators contending with an increasingly cluttered air domain. UAP would also 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,” it says.
Worryingly for national security professionals, the report also found that the sightings were “clustered” around US training and testing grounds. But investigators downplayed those concerns, assessing that “this may result from a collection bias as a result of focused attention, greater numbers of latest-generation sensors operating in those areas, unit expectations and guidance to report anomalies.”
Still, the Pentagon said in a statement after the report’s release that it plans to formalize the study of UFOs.
A memo from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks instructed the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security to create a formal mission for the work currently done by the UAP Task Force.
Hicks framed it as a question of national security, saying, “It is critical that the United States maintain operations security and safety at DoD ranges,” noting that many of the observations have been near military areas.
Hicks called for reports of UAP observations to be ready within two weeks of an occurrence or observation.
Report follows years of infighting
After years of Washington infighting, including bureaucratic battles within the Pentagon and pressure from certain members of Congress, the US government finally appears to be taking seriously what has for so long been considered a fringe issue.
For lawmakers and intelligence and military personnel working on unexplained aerial phenomena, the bigger concern with the episodes is not that alien life is visiting earth, but rather that a foreign adversary like Russia or China might be fielding some kind of next-generation technology in American airspace that the United States doesn’t know about.
That is one of the reasons this unclassified report will likely disappoint UFO-ologists who had hoped it might offer definitive proof the US government has made contact with extraterrestrial life.
“For years, the men and women we trust to defend our country reported encounters with unidentified aircraft that had superior capabilities, and for years their concerns were often ignored and ridiculed,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Friday. “This report is an important first step in cataloging these incidents, but it is just a first step. The Defense Department and Intelligence Community have a lot of work to do before we can actually understand whether these aerial threats present a serious national security concern.”
If the sightings were the result of Chinese or Russian technology – either some kind of unknown aircraft or a technology system that can spoof US radar and other surveillance and reconnaissance systems – the intelligence community would not want to reveal what it does and doesn’t know.
“They’re very sensitive to, if this is an adversary, you want to be really careful about saying, ‘we know this and we don’t know that,’” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who received a briefing on the matter from Navy and FBI officials last week.
“The report is going to be a little unsatisfying for that reason and that reason alone,” he said.
Still, the fact that the intelligence community is producing reports on what the Pentagon has labeled UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon) is itself extraordinary, as CNN has previously reported.
Even as sightings of unexplainable objects rose into the hundreds, Pentagon officials wrestled with how much time and resources to devote to investigating them.
Most of the 144 sightings covered in the report were recorded by US Navy pilots, although there were some reports from other US government sources — a clear “reporting bias” in the data set investigators examined, the US official said.
Investigators tried to categorize the 144 sightings into five categories: airborne clutter, like birds or weather balloons, natural atmospheric phenomena, US government or industry developmental programs, foreign adversary systems, and an alluring catchall: “Other.”
“There is a wide range of phenomena that we observed that we ultimately put into the UAP category,” the official said. “There is not one single explanation of UAP.”
But in the 143 unexplained cases investigators simply lacked the necessary data to categorize the sighting. Some reports included no technical data at all for engineers to examine, but rather were solely verbal recollections by pilots.
The report does not include any additional videos or UFO sightings.
Report raises more questions than answers
Congressional sources who have seen the classified version of the report have already expressed disappointment there’s not more of an explanation to the episodes, saying that the report raises more questions than it answers.
Previous interviews with a half-dozen officials as well as documents reviewed by CNN depict a US military and intelligence community that’s struggled over how to remove the issue from the realm of science fiction and consider its actual national security implications.
Even now, multiple sources told CNN, the government almost certainly wouldn’t have moved to produce the report without public pressure from key lawmakers, as both Republicans and Democrats have taken an interest in the matter.
While former senior defense officials with knowledge of the most recent iteration of the department’s investigations say the Pentagon took it seriously, some pilots and former officials tasked with investigating the matter say senior Pentagon leaders downplayed or ignored the threat.
Erasing the stigma surrounding a serious discussion of UFOs was also the goal for lawmakers in 2020 when they passed legislation requiring the Pentagon and intelligence community to provide more information about these UFO encounters, details that have, until recently, largely remained shrouded in secrecy.
Requiring production of the upcoming UFO report was also one way lawmakers have signaled that they intend to use their oversight authority to ensure coordination among the agencies involved, sources told CNN last month.
“One of the functions of a course like this is that it forces actual coordination within the agencies and makes clear that Congress is actually serious about its oversight function and that there’s going to be increased scrutiny along the way,” a congressional aide said at the time. “Some of it is a product of getting the agencies to take the issue more seriously and trying to help get rid of the stigma surrounding it.”
CNN’s Oren Liebermann contributed reporting