Drones and UFOs: An Incomplete History [Part Two]

Drones and UFOs: An Incomplete History [Part Two]
Photo by Cassi Josh / Unsplash

Note: this is the second part of a longer piece on the history of drones and UFOs. Read part one here.

Around the time that Luis Elizondo wrote emails requesting declassification of videos in 2017, the drone budget of ISIS was already about $1.1 million dollars. That money allowed them to acquire at least 300 drones, largely sourced through commercial channels in China and Europe. The method was simple: purchase the drones anywhere outside of Syria, and find some mechanism to transport them to Syria.

Journalist Seth Frantzman described what it was like to face these drones in combat in his recent book "The Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future." Embedded with an Iraqi military unit in Mosul, Frantzman describes deserted towns and burned homes. Of that experience he writes, "it's the buzzing of an ISIS drone that I can still hear, years later. It is endless and unnerving, like the distant reverberations of explosions and other sounds of war."

He goes on to explain, "there was no way to fight the drone threat. Soldiers had tried to spray gunfire into the air, but it's hard to shoot a drone the size of your forearm from a hundred yards away when it is moving. Some Iraqi and US-led coalition forces tried jamming the drones. Bizarre-looking jammer guns, that look more like big toy squirt guns with an antenna on them, were offered to the troops. The jamming was spotty and the soldiers...hadn't been trained to use them."

Based on intelligence later collected in Syria, these drones were likely modified versions of the Phantom 4 – the same kind of drone you might use to take aerial pictures of real estate or for recreational flying. Drone tactics in the region have continued to evolve. By early 2020, reports of attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Syria described drones carrying mortar bombs. Army investigators originally indicated that some of them were made via 3D printing, but details remain sketchy.

The pace of news related to drone security issues is accelerating this year. Last week reports emerged of the attempted assassination of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi by a drone laden with explosives. These issues are of course not limited to the Middle East. Last week other reports emerged that a DJI Mavic 2, a small quadcopter drone, was used in an attempted attack on a power substation in Pennsylvania in July of 2020. An intelligence bulletin declared that it was "the first known instance of a modified UAS [unmanned aerial system] likely being used in the United States to specifically target energy infrastructure."

A crudely modified drone used in an attempted attack on US power substation

Though it is the first known attempted attack, it is not the first example of illicit use of drones near sensitive infrastructure. The War Zone has covered previous mass drone incursions near nuclear facilities, notably over the Palo Verde nuclear power plant. In my own work with the War Zone, I created an interactive and searchable map of over 10,000 Federal Aviation Administration reports of drone sightings. Together with Marc Cecotti I reported on at least a dozen sightings of unauthorized drones lingering near nuclear facilities. Among these FAA reports were other bizarre accounts, like one of a swarm of ten large drones flying at high speed through the tiny town of Whitney, Nebraska in January last year. These reports pile on top of other more well known accounts, like the rash of unexplained drone sightings in Colorado.

It is worth mentioning that most of the real-world attacks described above represent fairly simple modifications of existing, off-the-shelf equipment. They do not require much in the way of sophistication. There are lingering concerns in the drone security community that much more sophisticated tactics and technology are all but inevitable in coming years.

Again in 2017, a busy year for drone issues, filmmaker Stewart Sugg created this short science fiction film titled "Slaughterbots" that speaks poignantly to these concerns:

The film included statements by UC Berkeley professor Stuart Russell, speaking about the dangers of autonomous weapons. Without doubt, the film is a kind of primal scream – it is clearly designed to provoke strong emotion. It drew criticism from others involved in the debate over AI weapons. For example, Paul Scharre argued that the film overstates the problem by failing to account for ways in which future threats could be mitigated. However, he is clear that the underlying danger is very real:

I want to make something very clear: There is nothing we can do to keep that underlying technology out of the hands of would-be terrorists. This is upsetting, but it's very important to understand. Just like how terrorists can and do use cars to ram crowds of civilians, the underlying technology to turn hobbyist drones into crude autonomous weapons is already too ubiquitous to stop. This is a genuine problem, and the best response is to focus on defensive measures to counter drones along with surveillance to catch would-be terrorists ahead of time.

Since then, concerns have only amplified. Drone researchers have repeatedly pointed out the obvious: swarming tactics are only becoming easier as drones become more sophisticated. Drones are essentially smartphones with wings or rotors. Just as your phone becomes more and more imbued with machine learning technology, so do drones.

While people understandably focus on the threat to human life or potential assassination, it is important to remember that machine learning and particularly computer vision can be used in a myriad of other ways. The same computer vision models that can help train drones to "see" important pieces of infrastructure for remote inspection can be put to use for targeting instead. Just as a drone might use facial recognition to autonomously pursue a specific target, it could use computer vision to target just the right component of a piece of critical infrastructure. Other AI techniques can be used to create adaptive mission plans that allow the drone to adjust to rapidly changing circumstances. Improvements in software alone will likely radically amplify the threat of drones in the wrong hands.

The dangers here are anything but theoretical. A litany of stories I've discussed elsewhere pile up by the month. A few examples:

In articles like this one, it becomes overwhelming and frankly tedious to repeat the catalog of incidents demonstrating that this technology presents a real and immediate security concern.

While many people trust that the Department of Defense and the defense industrial base are prepared to meet the threat, the reality is much more complex. As it stands, the Department of Defense and the United States in general is losing its dominance in research and development. According to figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service, where defense related research spending once made up 36% of global research expenditure, it is now less than 3%. Although companies like Lockheed and Boeing have formidable reputations and technical legacies, the reality is that their combined research expenditure is significantly less than companies like Google or Amazon, individually.[1]


As it stands, counter drone technologies – and even just drone detection – remain largely open technical problems. While a patchwork of different modalities like radar, acoustic sensors and radio frequency monitoring can help detect drones, they are all limited. The small size of drones makes them inherently difficult to reliably detect. Likewise, measures to disable or destroy hostile drones are also limited. While the technological toolkit is growing, there is not yet a robust and mature solution that can be easily deployed in most circumstances. As Frantzman's searing account of being in combat with ISIS points out, it is not as simple as shooting them down with small arms.

In short, the drone issue is precisely the kind of quickly evolving security problem that slow defense bureaucracies handle unevenly. Of the many individuals I've spoken with in the drone security community, none have indicated that they think the problem is well in hand. All seem to expect that things are poised to get worse before they get better. In short, drones are a problem for the United States.

Certainties and Suppositions

One of the fundamental features of the UFO debate is that old cases are constantly re-litigated. Given the excitement around the Gillibrand Amendment, there will likely be renewed energy in the UFO conversation, and a desire to go back to old stories. The issue of drones will almost certainly continue to come up, if only because they are deeply embedded in several of the key media moments in recent years: the release of UFO videos to the press, legislative action, and recent debate over the 2019 Southern California event. Some of that re-visitation is already underway:

It must be briefly remarked that Huxley's Brave New World is a dystopia, and that Shakespeare's original phrase in The Tempest was used ironically.

To be sure, no one can deny the logical possibility of intelligent alien life. People have very good reason to doubt the likelihood of visitation, but the possibility itself also cannot be denied. Nor should it.

That said, the specific evidence that has been submitted has usually been brittle. Arguments about supposed smoking gun government documents turn out to be newspaper clippings. Claims about UFOs interfering with nuclear missiles turn out to have had their first airing in the National Enquirer and are directly contradicted by other witnesses. The more the public has learned about the much vaunted $22 million UFO program, the more it turns out that it was preoccupied with the supernatural. In the unveiling of TTSA, prominent photos of purported UFOs turned out to be errant balloons. Many of the claims seem to have the same basic problem: they rely on wishful thinking that amplifies mysterious elements of a story and spend little effort to examine other possible explanations.

What is unambiguous however is that there is a real, well-documented and present-tense issue with respect to drones – entirely and completely apart from their rhetorical commingling with UFOs.

It is also the case that international tensions in the Pacific are rising, particularly in terms of renewed competition with China. News broke recently that China has reconstructed American aircraft carriers and destroyers in a remote region as a test range to further develop anti-ship missiles. Earlier this year China flew nearly a hundred military aircraft around Taiwan in a show of force.

There was also the striking news this year that in January of 2021, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley secretly assuaged his Chinese counterpart that the United States was not planning a surprise attack on China amid our own domestic chaos. According to reporting by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Chinese intelligence had grown deeply worried over tensions in the South China Sea and assessed that President Donald Trump might attempt to start a war in order to retain control of the presidency. Milley's secret calls to his counterpart were buttressed by recommendations to the U.S. Navy to postpone military exercises to further tamp down tensions.

Writing our own piece in late March this year, Marc Cecotti and I did not know just how delicate relations between the United States and China really were. Though the underlying events we covered occurred in 2019, it stands to reason that if the aircraft were Chinese or even Russian drones, the matter would be profoundly sensitive given these tensions.

I say this to draw attention to what should be very obvious: it matters if the aircraft that flew near US ships close to the California coastline were Chinese drones or if they were alien spaceships. Although Milley's discretion seemed to be born of necessity, it is essential that the public have at least some information about the true state of tension and competition. Without that information, it will be impossible to hold a useful public debate over policy options, and ultimately for people to make informed voting decisions.

To restate: the strange confluence of drones and UFOs is a longstanding one. Drone narratives have been used by UFO advocates as justification and motivation for policy change. The argument has been that drones make up a subset of sightings of unknown aircraft, but they are distinct from other sightings that display incredible technological feats. To date, unassailable evidence of those incredible technological feats has not been publicly produced. The UFO movement argues that the evidence is stuck within intelligence networks and simply needs to be extricated by popular and political pressure.

The broad problem is that this argument relies on secondhand evidence from questionable brokers. It is hard to avoid noticing the frailties and omissions in the argumentation. While the support of some politicians isn't entirely irrelevant, it is also not proof of much beyond successful lobbying. A charitable reading of the situation is that incredible but subtle phenomena have very flawed messengers. Another possible view is that people with badges and impressive titles are not entirely immune from wishful thinking. Regrettably, the absence of concrete evidence invites debates over personalities and characters.

As I stated in the beginning of this two part series, I do not argue here that all unknown sightings are drones. I can't possibly know that. I also think that it is very easy to overstate the drone threat; while I'm sympathetic to the concerns raised in the film Slaughterbots, I find myself in greater agreement with Scharre's assessment that countermeasures will offset some but not all of the risks. Drones are an important technology with many productive, peaceful applications. We should neither agonize over them nor turn a blind eye to their more dangerous uses. Likewise, when it comes to UFOs, an empirical person must remain open to possible future evidence, but not at the expense of losing focus on concrete and pressing problems.

[1] Lt. Col. Mark Jacobsen, PhD "Keeping Pace with Drones Inside the US Government"