What the Pentagon’s New UFO Report Reveals About Humankind
The document says less about the search for life in the universe, and more about our current cultural climate and distrust of expertise.
AFTER A GREAT deal of speculation, the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have released a long-awaited report about their investigations into unidentified flying objects. The unclassified document, called “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” examined 144 incidents that occurred between November 2004 and March 2021 in which military pilots encountered something they couldn’t explain. Promoters of the idea that UFOs represent something beyond this world have been hyping up the release for months.
In only one case was the report able to deduce an exact nature of what their pilots saw with high confidence—it was a large, deflating balloon. It also concludes that further investigation of the other incidents would likely trace them back to some terrestrial cause, such as airborne debris, natural atmospheric phenomena like ice crystals, or flight vehicles from the US or other countries. But by their very nature, most of the reported cases are difficult to identify.
“The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP,” wrote the authors, using the military’s preferred parlance.
Today’s report follows in the wake of knowledge about a $22 million program known as the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, set up in 2007, whose existence was made public in a front page story in The New York Times in 2017. Though it contains no indication that any of its incidents could have been caused by things not of this Earth, it will be seen as a major victory by those who have been pushing for increased government disclosures about strange lights in the skies.
“No question, this is the story of the millennium,” says former CIA officer Jim Semivan, who helps run To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences, a company that researches UFOs and other unexplained phenomena. “This is going to reorder our consensus reality.”
His partner at To the Stars, Tom DeLonge (yes, from the punk-pop band Blink-182), agrees. “There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle,” DeLonge says.
Susan Gough, a spokesperson for the Defense Department, declined requests for an interview, writing in an email that the department “does not discuss publicly the details of either the observations or the examination of reported incursions into our training ranges or designated airspace.”
The new report is less a major turning point in our understanding of life in the universe and more a product of our current cultural climate, a time when expertise and authority are increasingly being called into question. The debate over UFOs instead highlights the limits of knowledge and humanity’s continued need to believe in something beyond our mundane experience of the world.
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It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time the government has acknowledged that its pilots on occasion see things that bewilder them. “The US military has done this before, in multiple ways, at multiple times,” says Kathryn Dorsch, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Last summer, for instance, the Department of Defense authorized the release of three videos showing purported encounters with unidentified phenomena, which featured oblong dots hovering and moving in eerie ways. In April, the Pentagon also confirmed that leaked video of a bizarre triangular object taken in 2019 was a legitimate recording of something it had yet to explain.