Confidential

UFOs: A Fringe Conspiracy, or National Security Threat?

Pentagon released video capture of an UFO

UFOs are a cultural phenomenon, and a controversial one at that. For millennia, Unidentified Flying Objects have been the subject of great mystery and speculation. Society often characterizes UFOs as more of a pseudoscience or misinterpretation of reality than a field worthy of study. 

That couldn’t be further from the truth, however. From an intelligence and security standpoint, UFOs are more relevant now than ever.

UFOs on the fringes

UFOs follow in step with other paranormal or obscure human events and experiences that have cultivated a surrounding subculture or fandom. There is plenty to say about the demystification of UFOs, and the realistic threat they pose on the integrity of international security, but the communities that foster UFO conspiracy theories seem to have the loudest voice. 

It’s worth noting the negative implications of such communities, daresay the more conspiratorial ones, who hold UFOs as evidence of extraterrestrial aliens visiting earth, possessing some sort of advanced spacefaring technology, and who can traverse the galactic expanse at ease, and conduct operations on earth, ranging from reconnaissance missions to full-fledged human abduction. 

Peripheral beliefs like that have their way of infiltrating the cultural zeitgeist as less of a reality-based conviction, and more of a taboo topic or meme. It makes sense why. At first glance, it may seem strange that a civilization capable of interstellar space travel would have any interest in our decaying planet. 

“If” some sort of alien species was to reach earth, all they would have to do is tune into the US mainstream news cycle. That alone would be enough to deter any further inquiry into the planet. Attempted humor aside, the noise generated by UFO conspiracy theorists has resulted in the topic being cluttered with skepticism. It has been etched into the pantheon of comical fringe topics, among its brethren Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the more recent addition of QAnon.

UFO enthusiasts at the Alienstock festival near Area 51, New Mexico (wikicommons)

UFOs as an ancient phenomenon

History has shown evidence of UFOs and the sighting thereof in ancient civilizations. These recorded sightings are not significant in a national security context, yet still shed some light on how easy the misinterpretation of natural phenomenon can be. Such misinterpretations are the basis for the pseudo-scientific factions underneath the UFO umbrella. 

Now, imagine for a moment how often UFO sightings get reported in modern times, with the existence of aircraft and drones. For the ancient world, that simply was not the case. Whatever humans observed and recorded during that time was likely some sort of natural event or optical illusion on behalf of the observers. 

Take St. Elmo’s Fire, for instance. Not the coming-of-age 80s movie, the scientific effect. To stop short of a poor attempt at defining something far outside the intended scope, St. Elmo’s Fire is a natural occurrence that results from ionized particles in the air turning into plasma and emitting a bluish glow. (source


In modernity, we can explain it. In antiquity, they couldn’t. You can do the math from there: an ancient observer notices St. Elmo’s Fire around some sort of prominent object, doesn’t understand it, yet must assign a meaning. The meaning in that context would have a divine origin, such as the visitation of a deity, or a supernatural omen. 

And there you have it; a myth is born. People tell other people, shared stories form, oral tradition spreads and preserves the stories which turn into legends, so on, so forth… 

Many cultures have their own examples of this idea playing out. Especially the ancient Romans, who had a particular knack for spotting what they classified as “flying armaments”. Some scholars trace the bulk of these ancient UFO sightings to the Annales Maximi, a series of annals documenting key events prior to 123 BC. The contained reports of what we would call UFOs are rife with military terminology, which reflects both the knowledge of their most advanced technology and the wartime conditions they endured during the period of the reporting. (source

Descriptions of these sightings include:

  • “Ships in the sky”

  • “Round shields made of metal in the sky”

  • “Flying stones” 

  • “Flying weapons”
  • “Flying shields on fire”

  • “Fiery globes”

The big picture is that the ancient world’s perception of UFOs is not much different from ours. Rome is one example, but civilizations throughout history had their own way of describing these events, that was sized to whatever level of understanding they had at the time (i.e., military technology). Although those occurrences have likely explanations with contemporary knowledge, humans labeled them as supernatural. 

Hieroglyphs in the Temple of Seti, Egypt. Some people believe they illustrate some sort of aerial craft resembling a UFO (flickr)

Project Bluebook

Fast forward to the 21st century, and you get Project Bluebook. Between 1947 and 1969, the US Air Force conducted this project to investigate UFOs—the first large-scale investigation of its kind. 

The late 40s were the era that UFO sightings began taking off in the public sphere. Advancements in aircraft technology were proliferating, a symptom of the Second Great War and incumbent Cold War. Not only that, but private flying was more accessible for amateur pilots, especially in the US. Kenneth Arnold was one civilian pilot who helped kick-start the UFO craze. 

On the 24th of June 1947, Arnold was flying a private aircraft near Mt. Rainier in the great state of Washington. Although the skies were clear, he saw in the distance a flash of a bright light, followed by nine more quick flashes. As written in The Atlantic, a report from Arnold described the lights as objects in the sky doing quick movements in all directions, including along a horizontal axis, side to side. (source

Some would say it’s a strange coincidence, but that same year was the famous Roswell incident. During the summer of 1947, a press release from the US Army described the recovery of a “flying disc” in the vast deserts surrounding Roswell, New Mexico. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen “alien bodies” taken from the wreckage, and rumors swirled in the public sphere. 
The government has since proven that the wreckage was from an at the time classified spy device, as part of Project Mogul, including the “alien bodies” which were likely test dummies encapsulated in the device. Roswell remains a crucial element of early modern UFO canon. 

The Project Bluebook investigation was long, extensive, and scientific. By the end in 1969, 12,618 reported sightings occurred, and of those 701 remained “unidentified”. (source) Other conclusions included:

  • “No UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force, was ever an indication of threat to our national security.”

  • “There was no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as “unidentified” represented technological developments or principles beyond the range of modern scientific knowledge.”

  • “There was no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as “unidentified” were extraterrestrial vehicles.”

Upon the finale of Project Bluebook, the US Air Force determined it would no longer dedicated resources to researching UFOs. Instead, they outsourced the task to private institutions and local law enforcement agencies. 

A resurrection of interest

UFOs have had a recent resurgence in the public sphere. There is a valid argument that the most significant reason for the resurgence is the June 2021 release of a government intelligence report. The report was supposed to declassify damning information about the government’s knowledge of UFOs, and give the public access to a slew of documents and reports regarding the topic that were once classified.

Conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts salivated at the idea, expecting the government to reveal its arcane secrets, and give them the fuel to rationalize wearing protective headwear made of tinfoil, and using social media to grass roots organize a movement—or rather, a meme—to storm Area 51. 

To their dismay, the government didn’t deliver. An Office of the Director of National Intelligence report titled the “Preliminary Assessment of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” sums up the executive summary of the later report’s findings: 

  • “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.”

  • “In a limited number of incidents, UAP reportedly appeared to exhibit unusual flight characteristics. These observations could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis.”

  • “There are probably multiple types of UAP requiring different explanations based on the range of appearances and behaviors described in the available reporting.”

  • “UAP clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to U.S. national security.”

  • “Consistent consolidation of reports from across the federal government, standardized reporting, increased collection and analysis, and a streamlined process for screening all such reports against a broad range of relevant USG data will allow for a more sophisticated analysis of UAP that is likely to deepen our understanding.” (sourcefor all bullet points)

Even though the conspiracy side of the UFO community got little information, the results of the report are alarming from a national security standpoint. Forget aliens and interstellar spacecraft. They are good for science fiction, but pure speculation versus a real clear and present danger. 
Instead, there is an excellent reason for governments to invest time and resources into the research of UFOs/UAP. If the recent report says anything, it’s that someone out there may have technology that surpasses the Western powers in terms of advancement and strength. 

UFOs and national security

Over at The Warzone, author Tyler Rogoway has a published article taking a thorough analysis into the idea of UFOs being adversarial drones that can surpass our air defenses and spy on the United States, both domestic and abroad. (source) Rogoway makes a very efficient and pointed case, that provides a cornucopia of food for thought regarding the perception the US government has on UFOs. 

That article ties into the more realistic view of UFOs, and how they are a relevant danger to national security. Drones are an ever-expanding necessity for a military force entering the future of warfare, however that may look. But who’s to say the US alone possesses the most advanced ones?
As obscure as it may sound, there is a realistic probability the hubris of the US and the fallacy of viewing the country as a bastion of advanced military technology may prevent the Pentagon from seeing things as they are. 

Intelligence failures have already led the US alone into years upon years of unnecessary war in Iraq, but could a similar intelligence failure be happening in its assessment of the current security threats and the aerial capabilities they have? 

Speculation is all we can do, but as Rogoway states with clarity and conviction, and as is necessary for any world superpower to do, there should be a greater sense of awareness in this area. 
The nations defenses cannot enact military readiness if procedures are non-existent. Procedures cannot be drafted, solidified, and tasked outwards without having an initial starting point. 

For the optimists among us, hope is not yet abandoned. According to Live Science, the Pentagon is opening a specific office dedicated to UFOs, as per the National Defense Authorization Act, which was codified in December of 2021. 
The central focus of this office is to investigate the potential for foreign adversaries developing and producing technologies that are beyond what the US is aware of. A step in the right direction, assuming it’s taken seriously. 

Omega thoughts

There is something happening within the skies that transcends our understanding. We as a species and civilization are at the most advanced time in the history of our world, yet we still encounter things like UFOs that leave us without the ability to explain or rationalize. 

Much like our ancient brothers and sisters, we still try to make sense of things by assigning meaning, hoping to take the edge off the sting of reality that reminds us of how little we know about the universe. 

The idea of extraterrestrials and advanced spacecraft has a strong gravity, pulling our collective imaginations into the thought of something greater than our natural world and everyday experience. For now, we can’t say for certain any such beings or technology exists. 

Until we can, we can continue to invest resources into investigating UFOs. Or, if you live in the US, blaming literally everything bad that happens in China and Russia. Are they the culprits? Or are they another Lovecraftian cog in the existential dread machine? Who knows, but the US has a Space Force now, so at least they have that going for them. 

Author

Michael Ellmer

Michael served as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps with tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Corps, he completed his undergraduate studies at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in communications. He is currently a graduate candidate at Brunel University, where he is pursing a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Analysis.

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