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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Explained: Why the US is waiting for a Pentagon report on UFOs

UFOs, which were a buzz in the 1980s and '90s, are back in vogue, generating segments on “60 Minutes” and even making their way into interviews with former presidents and trending across the Internet.

Written by Rounak Bagchi , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: June 25, 2021 1:02:11 pm
A still image from video released by the Department of Defense shows a 2004 encounter near San Diego between two Navy F/A-18F fighter jets and an unknown object. (Department of Defense via The New York Times)

Is that a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object)? A question that any normal person would have dubbed to be a line from a space fiction movie is what the United States Congress is also asking.

Between the lines of the $2.3 billion omnibus spending and coronavirus-relief package passed by Congress in December lies a stipulation requiring the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to deliver an unclassified report on unidentified flying objects to Congress within six months, compiling what the government knows about UFOs rocketing over American airspace.

UFOs, which were a buzz in the 1980s and ’90s, are back in vogue, generating segments on “60 Minutes” and even making their way into interviews with former presidents and trending across the Internet.

And more importantly, this is just not limited to the United States. Indians, too, are keenly waiting for what the Pentagon has to say in their report as sightings in this part of the world are also not rare, the latest one allegedly being in Gujarat a few days ago.

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With the Pentagon expected to submit the report before the end of the month, we try to understand whether it will actually help us get closer to understanding UFOs.

So, how did UFOs become a security worry in Washington?

Something that was treated as a joke around the world had heads turning in Washington in 2007. Senate Majority Leader Harry M Reid wanted the Pentagon to investigate UFOs and now when that is happening, he has said, “Everyone told me this would cause me nothing but trouble. But I wasn’t afraid of it. And I guess time has proven me right.”

In 1977, NASA had denied a request from President Carter — who said he had seen a UFO years earlier — to open a government investigation, calling the idea “wasteful and probably unproductive”. The denial came after the Air Force shut down an investigative programme called Project Blue Book in 1969, saying it uncovered little in two decades at “considerable expense”.

However, what had once leaped off Hollywood movies and science fiction novels has become an international conversation now. Last summer, the US Defense Department issued a news release with the following headline: “Establishment of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.” The mission of the UAPTF }is to detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to US national security,” according to the Pentagon.

A few months later, as part of President Donald Trump’s spending and pandemic relief package, the Senate Intelligence Committee included a provision calling for the director of national intelligence to help produce an unclassified report on everything government agencies know about UFOs, including scores of unusual sightings reported by military pilots.

Air Force and Navy pilot videos that have surfaced in recent years show unexplained objects on radar traveling at unusual speeds and performing aerial maneuvers that defy logic when compared with what even the most advanced military planes are known to be capable of.

Referring to this, former CIA director John Brennan, appearing on a podcast hosted by George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen late last year, said it was “a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe.”

And more recently, former CIA director R James Woolsey said in an interview with the Black Vault, a website that collects paranormal sightings, that he wasn’t “as skeptical as he was a few years ago, to put it mildly, but something is going on that is surprising to a series of intelligent aircraft, experienced pilots.”

What do we know about the UFO report?

The Intelligence Authorization Act for the 2021 fiscal year directs the task force to deliver a report to Congress by June end on collected records, with information on how it will analyse and track future sightings. Officials have reportedly examined over 120 such sightings from around the world, including three videos that were declassified by the Pentagon last year.

In March, former director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe had offered some hints during an interview with Fox News, saying it would describe events from “all over the world”, and that “there are a lot more sightings than have been made public”.

Although no remarkable revelations are expected, the fact that a report on UFOs exist proves that extraterrestrial research has found its way from supernatural and fictional movies into regular conversations around the world.

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Why is everyone talking about it now?

Civilian groups have for long called out governments to make public the evidence that they believe has been suppressed regarding the existence of UFOs.

The issue gained momentum in America in December 2017 when the New York Times reported on a $22 million Department of Defense programme established in 2007. Known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, it was designed to examine military encounters with UFOs. Money for the programme came at the request of Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat who represented the region that encompasses Area 51 — the military site where conspiracy theorists believe remains collected from an alien crash in the town of Roswell have been studied since 1947.

Over the next few years, lawmakers and defense officials began to take interest as more Navy pilots shared their accounts of frequent run-ins with UFOs, and several videos of the encounters were released.

Former US Presidents and top officials have also demanded to know whether the truth is actually out there or not. Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, long a follower of UFO theories, promised during her 2016 campaign that she would release classified government reports on aliens if she were elected.

Former President Barack Obama put it more plainly in May, when he told late night TV host James Corden: “When I came into office, I asked… is there a lab somewhere where we’re keeping the alien specimens and spaceships? And you know, they did a little bit of research and the answer was no.” He added, “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there are, there’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory… And so, you know, I think that people still take it seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is.”

What do we know about the UFO sightings?

Earlier this month, former Navy pilot Lieutenant Ryan Graves told ‘60 Minutes’ that he was “worried” about the objects that he says training pilots saw “every day for at least a couple years” off the eastern seaboard. “You know, if these were tactical jets from another country that were hanging out up there, it would be a massive issue. But because it looks slightly different, we’re not willing to actually look at the problem in the face. We’re happy to just ignore the fact that these are out there, watching us every day,” he had said. Graves claims that his squadron of super hornet fighter planes began seeing UFOs over restricted airspace in Virginia just after they updated their jets’ radar system in 2014, allowing them to zero-in on a target with infrared cameras.

Reiterating Graves’s stand, Navy pilot Alex Dietrich told BBC News that he had seen a “little white Tic-Tac-looking object” that was “travelling very fast and very erratically”. “It didn’t have any apparent smoke trail or propulsion. It didn’t have any apparent flight control surfaces to manoeuvre in the way that it was manoeuvring,” he had added.

What are critics saying about the Pentagon’s report?

Science writer Mick West, who has been one of the greatest critics of the report, has said that UFOs spotted by the military are likely technology we already understand.

“Evidence that UFOs represent something extraordinary — like anti-gravity, possibly aliens — has not been forthcoming and it is unlikely it will be,” he had said on Twitter. Also, during an interview with CNN, West said: “The images we see in the military UAP videos could easily be the result of mis-calibrated instruments or various camera distortions. These can all be explained.”

Andrew Fraknoi, an astronomer at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning, University of San Francisco, echoes the widely held sentiment among scientists that the media has given far too much attention to sensational claims that vague lights in the sky are actually extraterrestrial spacecraft.

“Recently, there has been a flurry of misleading publicity about UFOs. A sober examination of these claims reveals that there is a lot less to them than first meets the eye. Given sufficient evidence, UFO sightings can essentially always be tied to terrestrial phenomena, such as lights from human-made vehicles and reentering space junk,” he adds.

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