A few weeks ago, Armenia and Azerbaijan began the opening phases of a potentially devastating conflict.
At one point, Azerbaijan threatened to launch a missile attack against a nuclear power plant in Metsamor, Armenia. The two Soviet-era VVER reactors there are in poor condition; one has been shut down for some time. Neither have a secondary containment building. A meltdown would potentially release radiation widely throughout Europe.
As testament to the folly of war, the fallout could blow back into Azerbaijan.
If you're reading this in the United States, there is a good chance you haven't heard much about this. It is one of many potential catastrophes that the world community is managing somehow to avoid, despite collective ignorance.
The problem of Metsamor underscores the irreducible risk of being part of an intricate web. Collective safety is determined by often unknown relationships to far-flung people and places. A family in Scotland or Germany doesn't wake up expecting that fallout from a Soviet-era reactor in Armenia may drift in over the wind.
Yet it might. It only requires a really bad day some 2,500 miles away. The reasons for that bad day, its history and its ultimate denouement, might be inscrutable to those not directly involved in the conflict.
Whether you understand the reason or not, the wind will carry the fallout just the same.
Without Googling, could you guess how many nuclear sites are within 2,500 miles of you?
If you're an American, the answer is probably over a hundred. For a sense of scale, the distance from California to New York is about 2,800 miles. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses 95 reactors. There are considerably more experimental reactors and other sensitive places where nuclear waste or weapons are stored.
Thanks to the work of Douglas Johnson, a volunteer researcher affiliated with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), we now know that in the last five years there have been over fifty suspicious drone events at just the NRC sites. One particularly dramatic event involved a drone swarm flying over the nation's most powerful nuclear reactor in Palo Verde, Arizona.
Of those fifty incidents, only five were resolved through investigation.
We don't know what the other events entailed exactly. They could have been drone hobbyists, in for the thrill of taking pictures where they shouldn't. Or they could have been bad actors probing our defenses. It is wise to expect that the fifty cases contain a mixture of both.
Drones get cheaper and more capable every year. At the level of state actors, there is a new genre of nightmare technology called "loitering munitions" – essentially, cheap suicide drones. Incidentally, such technology has played a role in the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict. Armenia has routinely used them to attack tanks and to shift the balance of power.
It doesn't take state-level resources to use drones offensively. Little expertise is required to attach a grenade or improvised explosive to one. In September of 2019, a precision drone attack in Saudi Arabia temporarily crippled oil production. Non-state actor attacks against industrial infrastructure are not theoretical. It has already happened.
In many places of the world, there is a strange dual threat of old and new technology. The same country with an aging, dangerous reactor is also experimenting with new drone technology in order to alter the strategic calculus. In doing so, it escalates the risk of retaliation against its own crumbling infrastructure.
What other countries have a habit of investing in advanced new military technology, while neglecting key infrastructure?
Another question to try without the help of Google: what is the average age of operating nuclear reactors in the United States?
The answer is about 38 years. American reactors are largely "Soviet era," too. They are better maintained, but certainly not without risks and problems. Thanks to Johnson, we know that drone incursions are an escalating issue.
More broadly, the United States struggles with a peculiar cultural vulnerability: a foolish taboo around discussing unknown things in the skies.
Many years of media narratives and glib news reports have reinforced a tendency to nervously laugh off accounts of strange aerial sightings. Even seasoned military pilots can't report seeing something strange without hearing Men In Black jokes, or seeing cartoon flying saucers on debriefing slides.
Such immaturity has never been harmless. It has always been a defense gap. The sadly warranted self-censorship of pilots and military personnel limits the ability to collect and process vital intelligence.
Such reflexive avoidance was easier to absorb in a past era, when only state-level actors had the ability to meaningfully fly weapons of war.
It can't be sustained for much longer. As technology advances, foreign competitors or bad actors will creep into the general confusion surrounding unidentified aerial phenomena.
It is worth repeating that anything described as a UFO is one of four basic things:
- A misidentified normal occurrence
- An unusual domestic experimental technology
- A foreign competitor or adversary
- Something yet stranger
The question has always been the distribution of each category, whether there are any true cases in the fourth. Resolving one particular case does not somehow resolve them all. Each case must be worked.
The mind naturally rebels against such complexity. It is easier to think of UFOs as all one thing – it is the reason why, invariably, an acronym meant to indicate something unknown has become cultural shorthand for "aliens."
In spite of collective allergy to complexity, the skies will become stranger and more active in coming decades. Tracking will likely not fully keep pace. The cultural vocabulary to describe such a busy sky cannot safely remain so stilted, so easily silenced by fear of judgement.
Immaturity is a subtle but deep threat to security. Nuance in the face of uncertainty has always been important. As the world becomes yet more complex, it will become a chief survival imperative.
There is finally now an organized governmental response to the UFO problem. The Department of Defense has officially announced its task force to investigate unidentified aerial phenomena. According to a press statement:
The mission of the task force is to detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security.
In a perfect world, this task force will recognize that each of the four possibilities described above requires a coherent and distinct policy response. There will be attention to conventional and emerging threats, as well as an overdue reckoning with some of the stranger cases.
In the world we inhabit, there is a risk that an all-or-nothing myopia could descend on the process. Or, at the least, in the public reaction to it.
Some are convinced that all unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) are merely optical illusions or radar artifacts. This attitude can create a dangerous normalcy bias that tends to conclude that nothing in the sky is interesting because there usually isn't. Importantly, "usually" does not equal "always."
Others are convinced that all UAP are aliens. Dogged insistence that every sighting is alien, or that all government response to this issue is inherently conspiratorial, is equally dangerous. Particularly when we know that unusual drones are becoming a more accessible weapon. Even if some sightings really did turn out to be aliens, it is likely some reported UAP are more terrestrial threats.
It bears repeating: resolving one case does not resolve them all.
The maddening aspect of the problem is that everyone is partially right. Plenty of sightings, even military ones, are nothing more than mistaken observations. The United States government has at times treated this issue in bizarre ways that are easy fodder for conspiracies. Some cases do have the appearance of black budget programs; others could be genuine threats. A not insignificant number stubbornly defy any reasonable explanation. It may actually be "all of the above." The enduring question: in what measure?
Many ask why things are changing now.
The root issue is that the geostrategic chessboard has mutated. To start, we're no longer playing against a single significant competitor. Technology is accelerating the tempo. The pressure and uncertainty are increasing. Over time, speed can convert uncertainty into active danger.
National security decision-making has always been hard, but it is becoming harder at a superlinear rate. Imagine driving down the highway, your car accelerating beyond your control. At 60 mph, uncertainty about something on the road is manageable. At 250 mph, there is no room for hesitation.
So, where policy vision might tend to be blurry – where there appears a single hazy outline of an amorphous mass – it must now become drastically sharper.
If you're convinced that everything is aliens: remember Johnson's fifty unexplained sightings over aging nuclear reactors. Do you think they are all spaceships? Or might there be some bad actors in the mix? Should the intelligence community find out, and will you extend them an ear when they tell lawmakers and us the results?
If you're convinced it is all mistakes and radar glitches: the truly difficult cases are mounting in recent years. Moreover some do seem to represent genuine national security problems.
The global speedometer is redlining. Facile certainties in monolithic explanations, once merely stupid, are now dangerous.
There are confusing days ahead. As vision tends to blur at high speed, maintain a healthy doubt that everything is all one thing or another.