US military taking 'all hands on deck' approach to understanding UFOs

An unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP), as captured by the sensors of a U.S. Navy jet.
An unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP), as captured by the sensors of a U.S. Navy jet. (Image credit: DOD/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. military aims to more systematically classify and characterize reports of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), officials said during a congressional hearing on Tuesday (May 17).

Two top-tier military witnesses shared progress on identifying the phenomena more familiarly known as "unidentified flying objects," or UFOs, using modern technologies, a range of experts and other tools. 

Tuesday's hearing of the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation Subcommittee followed on the heels of a preliminary report submitted last year to Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that outlined progress to date on the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.

Additionally, the National Defense Authorization Act required the military to create a permanent office to house UAP investigation efforts, along with an annual report and briefings to Congress twice a year. The office is known as the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG) 

Related: 2022 could be a turning point in the study of UFOs

"Today, we will bring that organization out of the shadows," subcommittee chair André Carson (D-Indiana), said during the opening of the hearing. Calling UAPs a "potential national security threat," he said pilots reporting them have been stigmatized "for way too long."

"Pilots avoided reporting, or were laughed at when they did," Carson said. "DOD [Department of Defense] officials relegated the issue to the backroom, or swept it under the rug entirely, fearful of a skeptical national security community."

Witnesses at the hearing included Ronald Moultrie, the Pentagon's top intelligence official, and Scott Bray, Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence. Moultrie's office oversees the UAP office, while Bray was invited given that Navy pilots are among those who have made high-profile UAP sightings in the last 20 years.

Bray and Moultrie said there is nothing so far in the reports that suggest anything is outside of terrestrial origins, noting that astrobiologists are among their consultants to preclude extraterrestrial life. Further, relationships with other U.S. military organizations do confirm these are not reports of classified American aircraft. 

That said, some information about UAPs (such as wreckage, or searching underwater) remains classified. The witnesses pledged to address the classified information during a private part of the hearing, following the public discourse.

Moultrie emphasized that in recent years, pilots have been encouraged to make reports of UAPs and said that the new office will go even further in that effort. The work to come, he said, "will include the thorough examination of adversarial platforms and potential breakthrough technologies, U.S. government or commercial platforms, allied or partner systems and other natural phenomenon."

The historical stigma, he noted, will be addressed. "Our goal is to eliminate the stigma by fully incorporating our operators and mission personnel into a standardized data gathering process," he said. "We believe that making UAP reporting a mission imperative will be instrumental to the mission's success."

Bray added that new efforts to investigate UAPs include subject matter experts across the DOD, as well as members of the intelligence community spanning several U.S. government agencies and departments, along with academic research laboratories with specialties spanning physics, optics, meteorology and metallurgy.

"In short, we've endeavored to bring an all hands-on-deck approach to better understand this phenomenon," Bray said, but noted even with all this expertise, it is still difficult to quantify all observations. "Any given observation may be fleeting, or longer. It may be recorded, or not. It may be observable by one or multiple assets. In short, there's rarely an easy answer."

Related: UFO watch: 8 times the government looked for flying saucers

Bray showed a short cockpit video to illustrate the problem, in which a streaking object appears for a couple of seconds in a Navy pilot's field of view at an undisclosed training range. "In many other cases, we have far less than this," he said.

But in some limited cases, there is progress. Bray next showed two videos recorded on opposite coasts of the United States, several years apart, by Navy personnel. The recordings each showed triangle-shaped objects flying through the sky in the view of night vision goggles.

The second encounter, he said, was observed by independent "assets" (which he did not specify) confirming unmanned aerial systems, or drones, flying in the region. The Navy now is "reasonably confident" that the objects were drones, and the triangle shape arose "as a result of light passing through the night vision goggles, and then being recorded by an SLR camera."

When Carson observed that the Navy might be trying to distract from hundreds of recently reported UAPs by focusing on the few that could be explained, Bray said the effort is difficult, ongoing and much of the work necessarily is classified.

Navy pilots' sightings in coastal regions implies a likely location for advanced reconnaissance craft by other nations, given that U.S. mainland flights would be easier to spot, Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, previously told Space.com.

"We do not want potential adversaries to know exactly what we're able to see or understand, or how we come to the conclusions we make," Bray said, without specifying which countries are of concern. "Therefore, public disclosures must be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis."

Committee members only briefly alluded to which countries might be falling under suspicion. "The intelligence community has a serious duty to our taxpayers to prevent potential adversaries, such as China and Russia, from surprising us with unforeseen new technologies as overseers of the intelligence community," ranking member Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas), said.

He said the community has a responsibility to keep tabs on any potential hypersonic weapons development by these two countries and, where relevant, to share "actionable information" with countries such as Ukraine. (Ukraine has been subjected to an invasion by Russian forces for nearly three months now.)

Independently of this committee process, the U.S. is working to develop technologies that can counteract hypersonic threats. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently announced Phase 2 of  a "hypersonic defense interceptor" system called Glide Breaker.

For the agency's Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), another program targeting threats that travel in excess of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound), the agency also announced that a Lockheed Martin hypersonic missile prototype flew at Mach 5 "for an extended period." Another HAWC test was performed in September 2021 by by Raytheon Technologies.

UFO investigations themselves have spanned about seven decades. A small sampling of Air Force projects, for example, include Project Sign (ending in 1947), Project Grudge (1948) and the much better-known Project Blue Book (1952-1969). That last project investigated more than 12,600 UFO reports.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace