Taking the Skeptical Account of the Nimitz Incident Seriously

Taking the Skeptical Account of the Nimitz Incident Seriously

I have written elsewhere that all of the available hypotheses explaining the Nimitz incident are troubling. This week, I argued that whatever they were ultimately caused by, there is a pressing need for public pressure and political action.

Some of the potential problems implied by the incident are more obvious than others.

For instance, if a foreign drone was able to successfully infiltrate protected airspace, it could signal a serious lapse in defense preparedness. Former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee Christian Brose argues in his new book “Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare” that the United States has already fallen behind in strategic terms. The 2004 Nimitz incident may simply have been an early example of the consequences of an antiquated, listless security policy.

However, skeptics like Mick West argue that the Nimitz incident was likely not a drone with advanced capabilities, and more likely involve a complex case of mistaken identity. West has offered detailed analyses of the videos of the events, explaining that they are less exciting than they initially appear.

In reconciling the larger set of events, West argues that the most likely scenario began with a radar glitch. Initial radar returns appeared to show the objects sometimes slowly drifting, and at other times traveling immense distances nearly instantaneously. It stands to reason that such extreme behavior might be best explained by the kind of abrupt discontinuities that computer errors sometimes produce. Indeed, if the radar data is accurate, novel physics are likely required to explained how such a vehicle could survive massive g-forces.

Of course, the Nimitz case involved more than radar observations. West further argues that the subsequent pilot observations may be the result of a loss of situational awareness. In West’s view, the understandably excited atmosphere surrounding the initial radar data may have produced a hyper-vigilance that compounded into subsequent misidentifications.

In our recent conversation, Mick West reasoned that though his explanation involves a complex series of events, it is logically preferable to an alternative that would require new physics with groundbreaking consequences. As arguments go, this is a compelling enough premise.

There are also significant problems for this argument. If West is right, several experienced military operators were not only confused by prosaic events, they were awed by them. Advanced radar must have malfunctioned repeatedly. Coincidental sightings of natural events or distant planes must have occurred in just the right places and times. While it is comforting to think that the incident could be ascribed to such errors, it is hard to square with multiple sources of data and an abundance of credible testimony.

The purpose here is not to debate Mick West’s arguments. They are necessarily incomplete and complex. However, West’s arguments are of interest because they appear to be the least threatening of the available possibilities. They can be used to index a lower bound of potential harm. So, here I propose suspending judgement and taking the implications of his arguments seriously. What would it mean if the intense interest surrounding the Nimitz incident was the product of faulty equipment and psychological distortion? What should be done if Mick West is right?

Physicist Eric Davis draws a direct line between the Nimitz incident and the much discussed AATIP and AAWSAP programs in a new interview. He is in a position to know as a consultant and contractor in defense intelligence efforts. In particular, he asserts that 38 defense intelligence research projects were one of the primary outcomes of the $22 million dollar AAWSAP/BAASS led scientific endeavor.

Adjusting for inflation, the budget of the program was approximately $27 million dollars today. In the relative scale of defense budgets, it may be easy to scoff at the prospect of millions of dollars spent against a backdrop of hundreds of billions. However, there is always competition among public funding priorities and $27 million dollars is not a trivial sum.

At a cost of about $180 dollars per dispenser, the AAWSWAP budget amounted to approximately 150,000 doses of insulin today. At a cost of $2.50, it is 10.8 million school lunches. In a country with nearly $25 trillion dollars of federal debt and endemic poverty we cannot afford to be casual or cynical about such sums.

If West is correct and Dr. Davis is to be believed, the defense apparatus arguably wasted millions of dollars on the basis of the Nimitz events. In fact, Davis further claims that the military component of the program, known as AATIP, is ongoing under a different name and still concerned with UFOs. Though the events of the Nimitz are now nearly 16 years past, public dollars and resources are potentially still wasted in fruitless pursuit of misinterpreted data and pilot error.

The list of defense intelligence studies produced during Davis’s tenure is startling. Indeed, one of Dr. Davis’s several contributions is titled “Traversable Wormholes, Stargates, and Negative Energy.” Another paper proposes a statistical revamping of the Drake equation, a famous exobiological model of the number of intelligent species in the universe. While the majority of the papers are unclassified, many are still not publicly available. Davis explains that they were intended to be unclassified so that they could be published academically.

They should be carefully reviewed now. Credible experts with deep familiarity in the relevant fields are required to assess if these studies are well-grounded or if they are pseudoscience. Though they were written to anticipate speculative futuristic scenarios, it is important to know if they are of high quality because the government appears to have spent large sums to obtain them.

I have previously argued that the lack of resolution of the Nimitz incident constitutes a public harm that should be remedied through appropriate transparency and oversight. A potential counterargument is that the events of the Nimitz incident were many years ago, and whatever vulnerabilities they may have demonstrated are no longer important. However, the public record reflects that millions of dollars were spent investigating the possible implications of the event, in addition to whatever resources were used to investigate the event itself.

Importantly, though the DOD maintains that the AAWSAP program was discontinued due to its low priority, Davis asserts that its military counterpart continues to investigate. Resources continue to be applied. The public should know if West is right, and if that money is wasted.

Mick West is striving to be a voice of reason: he rightly argues that apparently extraordinary events are merely complicated and not magical. He does an unpopular but important job of arguing that we should consider sensible possibilities and avoid jumping to conclusions. It is vital however to not confuse the unlikely with the magical. The black swan fallacy can wrongly anchor analysis in historical precedent; unlikely things happen every day. Ironically, if West is right, he will have been right about an incredibly unlikely series of events.

Whether or not someone agrees with West, it is important to consider the ramifications of his arguments. If he is correct, the Nimitz incident was not just an isolated episode of collective error — it is an expensive and ongoing delusion that wastes valuable funds to this day.

Apart from what such collective error might tell us about national security, we should be concerned by the prospect of pseudoscience burrowing its way into the defense and intelligence apparatus.

West may also be simply wrong; perhaps other hypotheses like foreign drones or yet more exotic craft are correct. The DIA studies suggest that at least some elements of the intelligence world suspect an exotic possibility; it is hard to imagine why they would pay for studies of the Drake equation if not.

More troubling still, it is possible that West is both wrong and that the response has been pseudoscientific rather than fully serious.

It is not impossible that the United States has been strategically eclipsed by clever rivals, and have been wasting funds with whimsical studies instead of fostering a Sputnik-level societal response. Foolish use of public funds is the least harm; other scenarios could be truly catastrophic.

This is why the need for accountability is so pressing: the public must know if defense and intelligence professionals have been minding the store. It is not enough to simply assume that they are. They can be questioned without demeaning them. In the best case scenario, the government will demonstrate that its actions, puzzling though they may seem from the outside, are well-founded and rational. They should have the opportunity to tell us and our elected representatives in a way that settles nerves without giving up vital secrets.

Skeptics have a potentially important role to play, if they will accept it. Their collective voice and nose for faulty thinking would help this issue. If you believe that the Nimitz incident was basically a non-event you should also be motivated to act given what we now know about the long term governmental response. The alternative is to accept past and ongoing waste in pursuit of delusion.