A hotly anticipated, but threadbare, UFO report from U.S. intelligence and defense agencies doesn’t answer any questions about aliens. But its release on Thursday does point to new success in getting pilots to report such observations, despite long-standing military reluctance about being branded a nut as a result.
In the unclassified version of an annual congressional report released on Thursday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) reported more than double the number of “Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena” (UAP) sightings, 366, compared with a first report released in 2021, which noted 144. While some of the new reports were archival, 247 of them came after March 2021, and the great majority of them were from military pilots.
“Overall, I am encouraged to see an increase in UAP reporting — a sign of decreased stigma among pilots who are aware of the potential threat that UAPs can pose,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement. In an era where spy drones from countries like China are a new worry for the U.S. military, that signal of reduced stigma may be the report’s real point, say observers, rather than finding aliens.
“It’s clear both military, intelligence and civilian government agencies are having input,” said Penn State historian Greg Eghigian, an expert on the UFO community, who noted that more than half of the new sightings in the report are balloons, drones or detritus. “Apparently the majority of new reports were coming from not just Navy but now also Air Force sources.”
AARO director Sean Kirkpatrick listed “the significantly reduced” stigma around UAP reporting as a chief accomplishment at a Dec. 16 briefing ahead of the report’s release. His office intends to expand sighting collection beyond pilots, he added, “to all service members, including mariners, submariners and our space guardians,” as well as employees of the Federal Aviation Administration, Energy Department and Coast Guard.
Both Kirkpatrick and Defense Department official Ronald Moultrie said they saw no signs of aliens in any of the observations — despite claims by UFO enthusiasts — and stressed foreign surveillance of U.S. military pilots as an overriding concern in their efforts. An October report in the New York Times, citing unnamed American officials, blamed some UAP sightings on Chinese drones spying on U.S. fighter pilot training.
The Defense Department is making public reports of UAP sightings in response to a congressional mandate sparked by a flurry of breathless news reports over declassified visual object videos, ones that propelled UFOs back into the mainstream. The new unclassified report was provided to Congress a day ahead of its public release and months after its official October deadline, a delay attributed to multiple defense and intelligence agencies needing to sign off on declassification of its details.
The report breaks some UFO ground by branding more than half of the new sightings, 195 of them, as balloons, drones or clutter, defined as “birds, weather event, or airborne debris like plastic bags.” Some of the remaining 171 uncharacterized observations display “unusual flight characteristics,” according to the report, that merit further investigation. (The report does not mention camera lens distortions or sensor glitches as causing observations, explanations seen in recent debunkings of publicly released observations.) The 2021 report was able to determine only one of its 144 reports was clearly a balloon, leaving the rest undetermined.
Low Information Zone
Both advocates and critics of UFO observations were underwhelmed by the 11-page report, which is largely devoted to describing the organization of the AARO and plans to collect observation data more rigorously. Only one page described the new observations.
“A disappointing lack of detail, but probably an accurate reflection of the state of UAP research,” said Mick West, a UFO video analyst and author of “Escaping the Rabbit Hole,” who has debunked a number of UFO videos. “Lots of sightings are explained, and the remainder exist in what I call the ‘LIZ,’ the Low Information Zone — where they are only unidentified because of a lack of information. This situation is unlikely to change much over the next few years.”
Christopher Mellon, a former Defense Department official who has appeared on the History Channel’s “Unidentified” UFO show, said, “Unfortunately, the report presents the bare minimum of information needed to comply with Congress’ request for an unclassified report. In some regards, the report is even less informative than the initial, preliminary report,” in a statement.
Mellon added that he had “spoken with several credible people who claim the U.S. has evidence of alien technology in its possession,” something explicitly denied by Moultrie and Kirkpatrick in December. (Nonetheless, an amendment to this year’s defense spending bill by a UFO enthusiast congressman, and reported by the New York Times, requires a search for historical UAP reports dating to 1945 in a bid to find a claimed “avocado-shaped” UFO crash in 1945 at a nuclear test site.)
The new report also does explicitly say there is no evidence of UAPs harming anyone, despite claims linking the phenomena to “Havana Syndrome,” neurological injuries reported by U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba with no known cause. (Another report by U.S. intelligence agencies, released last year, debunked the great majority of several hundred Havana Syndrome claims collected by federal agencies since 2017, leaving only a few dozen still unclear.) “This of course is a notion that has long circulated in ufology circles, namely that many individuals who have encounters with UFOs soon after become ill or are left with wounds of some kind,” said Eghigian. “All in all, I’m guessing this is going to leave a lot of close observers rather unimpressed.”
Among lawmakers, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Republican vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said “more needs to be done,” in a statement. He did call the increased number of observations “significant,” however.
The new report signifies one other change in UFO lore, by designating UAPs as unidentified “anomalous” phenomena rather than last year’s unidentified “aerial” phenomena designation. The change reflects concerns that sightings may include underwater ones as well as flying objects. (Moultrie noted at a December briefing that his office has not seen any indications of such submersibles but wants to keep an eye out for them as threats to ports and ships). Rebranding of UFOs has a long history, with “UFO” designating “Unidentified Flying Object,” a coinage made in 1953 by Air Force officials seeking to move on from “flying saucers.”
Language in this year’s defense spending bill requires several more years of declassified UAP reports from the Defense Department, making for an annual release ritual in the years ahead. “The fact that there remain so many instances of what they consider reliable reports of UAP that demonstrate odd or weird flight characteristics remains intriguing,” said Eghigian. “Not sure, however, what it says given we have so little other information being revealed.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.