The now famous Navy UFO videos have made several rounds of news and social media coverage. The reaction has been predictable: a mixture of reflexive cynicism and credulity.
The appropriate response to these videos is not laughter. Neither should it be navel-gazing speculation. It should instead be serious concern for what these incidents tell us about our national security.
Speculation and debate about the objects themselves miss a vital point. The reaction of the government and military to the incidents, whatever caused them, raises serious questions about our ability to handle issues of technology and strategic uncertainty.
In short, the videos depict two separate sets of incidents where the military encountered strange flying objects. In both cases, the encounters occurred near strategically important naval assets. Both encounters produced radar data, video, and eyewitness testimony from military aviators.
During the incidents, the objects displayed bizarre properties — the ability to accelerate at tremendous speed, and conversely the ability to “loiter” at very low speeds. The pilots who saw them say that they did not appear to be traditional aircraft. They expressed astonishment at the way the objects operated: they had no wings, or visible flight control surfaces.
Understandably, many have fixated on determining exactly what the objects were. There are four broad possible explanations:
First, the objects may have never existed at all — they were radar glitches and the like. Or, they existed, but were a misidentification of prosaic phenomena like birds or atmospheric effects. Secondly, they could have been a test of experimental defense platforms. Third, they may have been advanced technology from competitor nations like Russia or China. Finally, they could be of truly exotic origin: perhaps an automated extraterrestrial drone or exploratory craft.
It is not possible for the public to conclude which of these possibilities is correct; the events remain a mystery. While the military undoubtedly has more data available, it remains unclear if they have been able to determine what the objects were.
However, any of the scenarios described above spell trouble for our national defense.
If the objects never existed at all, military aircraft were diverted from important training at great public expense. Moreover, vital radar and imaging technology failed. If true, our most senior military aviators were not only confused, but awed, by birds or clouds. In this scenario, we must prepare to accept that we have squandered significant national treasure only to achieve buffoonery.
If the objects encountered were US experimental military platforms, they were apparently tested without coordination with the Navy. Testing in such a way risks accidents and public exposure of the technology. In fact, videos of the events were leaked years before official acknowledgment. This scenario would imply an out of control defense industry, wasting millions of dollars of development dollars in an ill-conceived and dangerous stunt.
If the objects were created by adversaries, they represent the type of revolution in military affairs that agencies like DARPA and the broader intelligence community exist to prevent. Worse, if the objects are breakthrough technology, their presence in highly sensitive areas reveals a belligerent posture by our rivals. In this scenario, not only do our adversaries have advanced technology — they feel comfortable provoking us by operating them in the open near some of our most important military assets.
Finally, if the objects are exotic in nature, they represent a profound scientific, cultural and governmental challenge to our species. It would be natural to feel a combination of awe, wonder and fear at such an event. It is impossible to guess at the motivations of potential visitors; but it must be said that there is some cause for concern given that these objects jammed the radar of US military aircraft during the Nimitz incident. Under international law active radar jamming is an act of war.
It is tempting to view the UFO videos and perennial circus surrounding them as amusing, or perhaps as an intriguing mystery. They are not. They indicate at least one of the following situations:
The United States government has wasted trillions of dollars, only to produce defective technology that cannot protect our airspace.
Or, the United States has wasted trillions of dollars in research and intelligence, only to be strategically surprised by an adversary.
Or, the United States has lost control of its defense contractors, spending incredible sums on technology that the public barely controls.
The “exotic” explanation — that these sightings represent truly strange technology — is simultaneously the most comforting, and the most damning. We could forgive our military for being confused and outmatched by other worldly visitors. However, it is hard to forgive our most trusted strategic planners and leaders to respond to such a profound test with bureaucratic secrecy. A momentarily baffled pilot is acceptable; sheepish avoidance of reality should be unacceptable in generals and admirals.
The great danger of the “exotic” scenario is that it merely takes the unexplained, or fear of embarrassment, to paralyze our national defense. Our world is poised to become stranger and more complex as technology continues to advance and proliferate. Recent events sound like the stuff of science fiction. Houthi rebels recently disabled half of Saudia Arabian oil production with coordinated drone attacks. China’s hypersonic drone and missile program threatens to surpass our ability to respond. Campaigns of information warfare are played out using computationally powered propaganda. Coronavirus shows us the importance of scientific and medical literacy; moreover the need for the public to trust its leadership.
Again: the UFO videos are a deadly serious test. Are we capable of dealing with confusing things without resorting to facile explanations? Are we adult enough to handle ambiguity? Can we admit what we don’t know? Are we prepared to live in an increasingly surprising, volatile world?
I’m not certain if the relative silence of the agencies and branches involved constitute a thoughtful strategy, or merely paralysis. Strategic or accidental, the effect of the long silences and disjointed statements is a delay in getting outside help. The military should of course foster healthy confidence in its strength and its competence, but it must be careful not to foster belief in its invincibility or infallibility. This is most true when it is confronted with problems that require outside expertise, or the help of the public.
If we have been technologically outmaneuvered by a rival country, our STEM institutions will need an awakening to muster the kind of response that the relatively staid and secretive defense contracting world cannot ordinarily accomplish. If by some miracle our defense industry has achieved such technology and have been reckless with it, they must have equally powerful oversight. That can never be achieved without public attention and pressure. It is unlikely, but if our military has become so incompetent that it cannot discern groundbreaking technology from birds, then another kind of awakening is needed, and soon.
And if something stranger has happened, or is happening now, then we must know that, too.
For our part, the public must resist the instinct only to laugh, to dismiss, to ignore, to theorize rather than to find out, and sometimes to accept uncritically. We must be willing to face whatever the problem is — whether it is corporate, foreign actors, or yes, something truly weird.