Expert Voices

What is a UFO? The US shot down three mysterious objects as interest and concern increase over unidentified craft

Is it a bird? A plane? A suspected Chinese spy balloon? (Image credit: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

On the heels of the Feb. 4, 2023, shooting down of a Chinese balloon suspected of spying on the U.S., American fighter jets have shot down three additional objects in or near U.S. airspace.

When the media asked Glen VanHerck, the Air Force general responsible for overseeing North American airspace, about these events, he refused to rule out extraterrestrial forces at play. Other military officials later clarified that otherworldly origins aren't a serious consideration, but the comment highlighted the U.S. government's lack of knowledge about these objects.

As a space policy expert, I'm often confronted with questions about UFOs and little green people. However, as these recent episodes have shown, a UFO is far more likely to be human-made, rather than originating from some faraway place in the universe.

Related: 'No indication' shot-down objects are alien spacecraft, White House says

What does UFO mean?

Unidentified flying object, or UFO for short, is the term that has historically been used to describe aircraft that aren’t easily identified or explained. The modern UFO craze in the U.S. dates to the late 1940s and early 1950s, coinciding with the development of new technology like rockets and missiles.

Today, the U.S. government uses the phrase unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs. This change is partially to try to disassociate the term from science fiction aliens. The term also encourages greater scientific study and reflects the fact that many of these "objects" end up being strange atmospheric phenomenon or tricks of camera equipment.

In 2020, the U.S. Navy released multiple videos of unidentified aerial phenomena, sparking interest in the public and government. (Image credit: U.S. Navy)

Taking a serious look

There are thousands of unconfirmed UAP sightings by the public each year, but until recently there was no formal way for the U.S. to track these sightings. That lack of interest began to change in 2020 when the Pentagon officially released three videos taken from the cockpits of fighter jets showing unidentified objects moving in mysterious ways.

The following year, in 2021, Congress mandated the creation of an assessment on UAPs. As part of this report, the director of national intelligence identified 144 firsthand accounts of UAPs from military aviators and government sensors between 2004 and 2021.

The Pentagon's UAP report identifies several potential explanations for UAPs, including clutter – an umbrella term that includes, for example, birds, balloons and drones. Other explanations include natural atmospheric phenomena such as ice crystals and thermal fluctuations, as well as secret technologies being developed by the U.S. or other nations.

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (Image credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson)

It is this last category that has drawn attention, with the U.S. military shooting down a number of balloons and unidentified objects in the last month. Countries like China and Russia can gather a significant amount of intelligence using spy satellites, but balloons – and potentially other technologies as yet unknown by the American public – represent another way to collect sensitive data. If the U.S. military or government can't identify a new technology, it is easy to classify an object as a UAP.

In 2022 alone, the Pentagon received 247 new UAP reports, about half of which were eventually attributed to balloons or "balloon-like entities."

At the same time, it's also easy to miss UAPs if people don't know what to look for, as appears to be the case with previous spy balloons that China has sent around the world.

Whether future UAPs are balloons, secret technology or something else, there will continue to be a greater national focus on studying UAPs and an increasing ability to detect them. It is likely that reports will continue to pour in and U.S. aircraft will keep tracking them down.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Wendy Whitman Cobb
Professor of Strategy and Security Studies, Air University

I received a BA in political science (summa cum laude and university honors) and an MA in political science from the University of Central Florida. I received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Florida where my research focused on the intersection of political institutions and public policy. I have authored several books including Unbroken Government: Success and Failure in Policymaking (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), The Politics of Cancer: Malignant Indifference (Praeger, 2017), and The CQ Press Career Guide for Political Science Students (CQ Press, 2017). My research has also appeared in journals including Congress and the Presidency, Space Policy, and the Journal of Political Science Education. I am currently professor of strategy and security studies at the US Air Force's School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, a selective graduate program for Air Force officers. Prior to my current position, I was associate professor of political science at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma.

  • Dave
    A UFO or UAP is an aerial phenomenon that is unexplained. The military investigate such phenomena and after a thorough investigation they will tell you everything you need to know. It is always the same answer. Classified.
  • Alfred Herman Schrader
    Back in 2007 I searched a UFO sighting area near Kennedy Space Center. I found nothing but the "things" came looking for me. Oh yeah, I have met ETs from another world. Don't ever search a UFO sighting area, you have no idea what you are dealing with.
  • Dave
    No paranoia. No conspiracy. And yes, a more intelligent lifeform is observing us. What we need is information from the military. Freedom of information in the form of declassified documents leads to accountability. The public has a right to know what the military is keeping secret with respects to UFO's or UAP's. Evidence of a more advanced species needs to be made public. In other words simply tell us the truth.
  • COLGeek
    Not to throw cold water on the discussion, but do you think that contact or knowledge like this could be kept secret in this day and age? I think not.

    I understand the desire to know, but there appears to be nothing to share. No matter how much some want it to be so.

    That being said, I have zero doubt that intelligent life exists elsewhere. Given science as we know it, we may never know of the specifics of said life.
  • twr
    Admin said:
    The Air Force general overseeing North American airspace refused to rule out extraterrestrial forces at play after unidentified objects were shot down in February.

    What is a UFO? The US shot down three mysterious objects as interest and concern increase over unidentified craft : Read more
    What a nonsense… Death/Million concerning weather phenomina were 15 times higher in 19th century than nowadays.
    You want the Green paradise? Then come to Germany. I am ready to abondon my citizenship in Germany when you give me yours. Then you can enjoy 2 Dollar per Liter fuel, have the highest prices in the world for electricity and your government order you to renovate your house. You will get a budget of CO2 consumption (planned) and if you consume more you have to refrain from heating for your house.
    You want that paradise? Come, get it! And why do you write for a space magazine? Rockets produce CO2 and have to be prohibited! As well as tragelling around the world!
    I invite you to enjoy the Brave New World in Germany!,
  • Dave
    A more advanced lifeform can easily keep their existence unknown. They have the technology. Our science would be primitive in this instance. It is what we will most likely decide to do in the future when we travel to the stars and in turn find a less advanced species.
    We are not the center of the universe. The universe does not revolve in an orbit around the earth. The earth is only one of 300 million potentially habitable worlds in a galaxy that is a habitat for both life and intelligent life. We are a world where liquid water is present and life on our world is the dominating force.
  • JMac
    COLGeek said:
    Not to throw cold water on the discussion, but do you think that contact or knowledge like this could be kept secret in this day and age? I think not.

    I understand the desire to know, but there appears to be nothing to share. No matter how much some want it to be so.

    That being said, I have zero doubt that intelligent life exists elsewhere. Given science as we know it, we may never know of the specifics of said life.

    I disagree. This is a usually fair general rule of skepticism, but the “UFO” case is different due to its nature and the strong societal bias against it.

    Nothing short of really hard physical evidence evaluated by multiple scientists or an official government announcement would validate the existence and even prior knowledge of UFOs in my view.

    You have airmen reporting interacting with these things over a period of weeks and catching them on multiple sensors simultaneously, but people shrug it off because “it can’t be true” basically.

    In fact, we dismiss unidentified phenomenon in the sky so casually that we actually seem to be missing foreign adversary drones and even outright spy balloons (a ridiculously unnecessary means of surveillance.)

    On the more extreme end, you have the former Israeli Space Security chief saying in the media that UFOs exist and the U.S. and other nations have been working with a federation aliens for decades. Now sure, I think that this is obviously more likely to be a joke or psy-op rather than true — but he said it it in the media, and all they did is report it as a wacky story and move on. There was no serious move to investigate, and this was a very high level figure in a position to know.

    I do not know if any form of intelligent life has or is visiting us, but I ask you this.. If either of these accounts were true — the more palatable one or even the incredible one, would anything be different?

    I think the answer is no.
  • Semper700
    You forgot to mention the other 150+ unexplainable UAP. What are those? China , US, and Russia don’t have the technology to defy the laws of physics. How about you report about the phenomena that some of the worlds brightest minds can’t explain? Thanks
  • Sirscott
    It's 2023, people can handle the truth, however, as I've noticed, they now don't care. I remember a time when the government didn't consider the word UFO, now they still don't haha they changed it to UAP. My point is, the Pentagon, the media and other high level official have said they have encountered UAP/UFO's. This should have been the biggest story ever, however, people just go on tik tok and don't even care.