Why the Pentagon Can't Identify Flying Objects

The U.S. Army Signal Corps launched and lost an aerial torpedo on October 4, 1918. Although the Kettering Bug was the torpedo's ancestor, it also served as a challenge for the military unit that launched it. The Signal Corps interviewed farmers around Dayton, Ohio to determine where the Bug went. However, the Corps didn't have the right language to describe what the Bug was. The aerial torpedo program, even if they knew the terminology, was top secret and the country was still fighting World War II.AdvertisementSome witnesses to the Bugs accident described seeing a pilot parachut out of the drone or describing the descent as the work of a drunk pilot. The Army didn't dispute these perceptions. Instead, it stated that the pilot who was missing had jumped out of the drone early and was being treated in a hospital. As a matter national security, the witnesses who led the Army in search of its missing drone weren't trusted with the truth of what they saw.AdvertisementAdvertisementThe Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a new report this Friday on unidentified aerial phenomenon, or UAP. UFO used to be a military term. However, it has taken on the cultural connotation that alien visitors are now commonplace. The military has adopted UAP as a more descriptive term. The report is only nine pages long, with two appendices. It does not identify the mysterious phenomena as either mundane human technology or extraterrestrial. The report instead defers certainty to future investigation and asks the public to believe conclusions based on evidence that the military admits could be the result of pilot or sensor error.AdvertisementWhile the Pentagon of 2021 has undergone a lot of transformation from the Army's 1918 exploration of aerial torpedoes, there is some continuity in its decision making and who it shares information with. The modern military mysteries of space lie somewhere in the middle between what the public can see and what the military cannot see and wants to share and what the military doesn't want to admit that it doesn't know.After a lengthy buildup that included media attention and a call by Sen. Marco Rubio for him to take the report seriously, the report finally drops with a dull thud. The report examines 144 sightings that were detected by U.S. government sensors (not only video) and names 18 incidents as possibly displaying an unusual flight pattern. The report does not declare them to be evidence of top-secret military research or foreign craft with a human source, but simply labels them as incidents for further investigation.AdvertisementThe Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, or UAPTF, considered a variety of UAP information described in U.S. military reporting and IC (Intelligence Community). However, because of the lack of specificity in reporting, the executive summary states that the military is lacking in data collection.Sensors on military vehicles can recognize familiar phenomena. It is not the best equipment for observing the unusual.This lack of data collection is partly due to military decisions, particularly the Air Force. After a report concluded that 90 per cent of UFO sighting reports were very plausibly related with ordinary objects, such as the many photos of Venus, the Air Force discontinued Project Blue Book in 1969. The remaining 10% of UFO sightings could at least be explained by public observation of top secret military spy planes. However, that information would not become public until 1992. The Air Force hoped Project Blue Book would help it detect new airborne threats against America by collecting reports about UFOs. It discovered that spy planes can sometimes be observed by people. After decades of close cooperation, the Air Force decided to stop responding publicly to any unusual observations made in the skies.AdvertisementAdvertisementUFOs and the Air Force both have their roots in the summer 1947. Amateur pilot Kenneth Arnold, a pilot from Washington, reported seeing a flying saucer in the vicinity of Mount Rainer on June 24. This triggered a flood of reports about flying saucers. A month later, President Harry Truman signed the 1947 National Security Act into law, making the Air Force autonomous. Similar to pilots reporting unusual sightings, they are just as old as the pilots.To secure the skies, you had to be alert for new threats that could emerge from the air. As tensions rose with Soviet Union, this meant that we had to be alert for any new threats from hostile countries. The Air Force has said that reporting on UFOs should be part of normal intelligence work since 1948. Kate Dorsch, a University of Pennsylvania historian of science, agrees.AdvertisementThis tension between the desire to accurately document threats and keeping military secrets secret would instantly collide in Roswell New Mexico.W.W. Mac, a father and son rancher, discovered the remains of a huge balloon on June 14, 1947 about 80 miles north from Roswell. Mac collected the debris and gave it to the sheriff three and a half days later. Brazel stated that he was prompted to give the debris to authorities by media stories such as Arnold's flying saucer sighting.AdvertisementThe sheriff reached out to the local airbase in an attempt to find the source of the mysterious object. An intelligence officer told the media that the Army had taken possession of the flying saucer. Roger Launius, former Smithsonians National Air and Space Museum curator of space history, stated to Smithsonian magazine that it was more convenient for the Air Forces to believe there was an alien spacecraft in the area than the truth. It also happened that the lie was exactly what the public wanted.AdvertisementThe Army provided a clarification half-truth just a day after the intelligence officers' report. It said that the object was a weather balloon that had crashed. Declassified in 1994, the full truth is that Roswell's crash was caused by a balloon from Project Mogul. This secret military program used microphones and other acoustic sensors to identify signs of a Soviet nuclear attack.Although the Roswell balloon and Kettering Bug crashes may seem absurd today, they are possible to explain if we look back at decades of declassification and disclosure. We should doubt that the military is lying about everything it knows, even though the military admits to the authenticity of recent sightings. Even pilots who see it in action, the military can keep the nature and extent of classified technology secrets.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementThree videos were leaked online and the beginning of a new era in UFO sightings. FLIR, a 2004 video that has been available online since at least 2007, was the subject of a New York Times article in 2017. GIMBAL was also released online by the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science in January 2015. This UFO-hunting venture was led by former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge. To The Stars also released the 2018 video GOFAST (another one filmed in January 2015).Since then, the Pentagon has confirmed that they were military videos. Each clip was shot with a camera attached on a military aircraft. It shows an object that appears to be moving against the sky in an odd way. The object travels at a great speed against wind and turns at strange angles. The videos are from 2015 and show the pilots reacting to the object's nature. It's a drone! It is rotating.AdvertisementThese videos have the appearance of authoritative documents or proof on film. The new report walks a fine line between stating that what is visible was what actually happened and acknowledging limitations of sensors on military aircrafts.AdvertisementThe report explains that most phenomena reported are physical objects and were captured by a variety of sensors including radar, infrared and electro-optical (think normal cameras), weapon seekers and visual confirmation (by pilots and other human observers). It is possible that UAPs have unusual flight characteristics due to sensor errors, spoofing or misperception. This report will need to be thoroughly analysed. According to the report, sensors mounted on U.S. military platforms were typically intended for specific missions. The sensors cannot be used to identify UAP. However, it is worth noting that some of the sensor readings may remain classified military secrets until they are declassified.AdvertisementIn the 1940s, the Air Force and Kodak worked together briefly to create a camera that could be used for UFO photography. Dorsch states that the camera is an immediate failure. They don't know what technology is needed or how to make it all work. Even if it did work, the Air Force wasn't convinced it was worth the expense or would even be successful. Instead, they rely on existing sensors on military vehicles that are designed to identify known threats.AdvertisementThis is to not mention the unusual readings that could result from interference with radio waves, signalsvisual, and infrared. This possibility is acknowledged in the report's mentions of spoofingthe intentional, hostile distortions of signals. Spoofing could be responsible for UAP sightings. This suggests that there are flaws in military sensors. It also suggests that another nation, or more than one nation, has enough information about American sensors to be capable of fooling them.AdvertisementThe release of videos shows some unusual activity, such as the acceleration speeds of unknown objects. This could also be due to a known, but not disclosed, sensor error. To protect people and vehicles that are firing these weapons, military sensors can be used to place weapons on the correct targets. Recognizing sensor errors means that another country can identify a weak point in the process.While a few videos have been made public, the report uses 144 incidents. The military has a lot more information than it shares with people, so it is likely to have very mundane reasons not to share all it collects. These 144 incidents are still mysterious, as the military hopes to improve internal analysis by collecting more information.AdvertisementAccording to the report, the Pentagon can categorize sightings into five useful categories with improved data collection and pilots being more willing to talk (work was done to remove the stigma surrounding reporting UAP in a New Yorker article published April). These include airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena and U.S. government/industry developmental programs. The military is likely to have an interest in keeping secret government projects and in verifying foreign systems before revealing them to the general public.Even though it has every sensor at its disposal, the military expects to have uncategorizable sightings. This is not an endorsement of new theories about aircraft, but an acknowledgement of limitations in perception. It's also useful for the military as a way to publicly acknowledge that it has the answer to a mystery, but not one that it considers crucial to national security.This wouldn't be the first instance when the military was able to tell the truth but it wasn't the only time.Future Tense is a collaboration between Slate, New America and Arizona State University. It examines emerging technologies and public policy.