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space, unidentified aerial phenomeno

Your Guide to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Conversations

A historic congressional hearing.

Words: Katie Howland
Pictures: Nicholas Bartos

We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.

Yesterday, the US House of Representatives held its first public hearing in over 50 years on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) in the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation. Think UFOs. In case you’ve been a bit distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, here is a dinner table guide to the recent history of unknown objects in the sky, and this novel hearing.


The Pentagon has been secretly investigating UAP reports since at least 2008, thanks in part to the advocacy of the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). For two years the Defense Intelligence Agency ran a $22 million program called the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Application Program. The program was contracted out to billionaire Robert Bigelow’s aerospace defense company, which at the time owned the famous Utahn UFO hotspot Skinwalker Ranch (yes, that one).

The Pentagon has been investigating Unidentified Aerial Phenomena since 2008 because US aviators have noticed some weird (and dangerous) things.

After the program concluded, the Pentagon shifted UAP investigations to the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which focused more directly on the nuts and bolts of UAP reports from military servicemembers. In August 2020, following congressional pressure, the Department of Defense created the UAP Task Force, a temporary Navy-led operation that ultimately produced the 2021 UAP Preliminary Assessment in collaboration with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Following this report, Senator Rubio (R-Fla.), Senator Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Representative Gallego (D-Ariz.) introduced an amendment into the 2022 National Defense Authorizations Act to establish a permanent UAP office within the Pentagon or a joint component of the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. This new office, called the Airborne Object Identification Management and Synchronization Group, is expected to be fully staffed and operational by June 2022. Principally, it will be responsible for coordinating the collection and analysis of UAP data across all components of the military and intelligence apparatus of the US government. The office will be required by law to provide annual unclassified briefings and biannual classified briefings to Congress.

In short: after a series of temporary programs, we now have a permanent office dedicated to Unknown Aerial Phenomena in the Pentagon.


Credible military aviators have observed UAP doing some weird (and dangerous) things. In at least 18 recent incidents evaluated by the UAP Task Force, UAP exhibited “unusual movement or flight characteristics.” Such characteristics included the presence of radio frequency radiation, the ability for UAP to remain in place despite challenging winds, and high speed acceleration without any visible propulsion system.

The former head of the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program Lue Elizondo helped to establish “five observables” that categorize the most confusing UAP characteristics. These include trans-medium travel (i.e., the ability for UAP to travel between water, air, and space), instantaneous acceleration, and hypersonic velocity. He noted in numerous public interviews that some UAP can accelerate at a rate of up to 600 G forces and fly up to 13,000 mph, speeds that exceed our fastest unclassified craft (the SR-71 Blackbird) by roughly 4x. These capabilities have proven particularly worrisome, as “…most reports described UAP as objects that interrupted pre-planning training or other military activity” in special use airspace. Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon noted at least 11 incidents of Near Midair Collisions caused by UAP in the last two decades.


After recent classified briefings, several congressional aides expressed frustration that the UAP issue is not treated seriously enough as the Pentagon works to set up the new Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. While data collection is becoming more synchronized, lawmakers and former Pentagon officials expressed concern that a unified effort to determine UAP sources and intent is still lacking. It is under this context that Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Ronald Moultrie and Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray were invited to testify yesterday. The hearing yielded three interesting takeaways.

First, the Pentagon confirmed that it has no evidence that UAP represent foreign technology. In the UAP Task Force Preliminary Assessment, the Pentagon stated that they currently “…lack data to indicate any UAP are part of a foreign collection program or indicative of a major technological advancement by a potential adversary.” During the hearing, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) pressed the Pentagon further on this issue, asking if the Department was aware of any foreign adversaries that are capable of flying craft without any visible means of propulsion. In response, Bray responded, “…we’re not aware of any adversary that can move an object without discernible means of propulsion.”

Second, the United States is not the only country with an active UAP monitoring program. When questioned by Dr. Wenstrup (R-OH), Bray noted that US allies have also seen UAPs, and countries like China have established their own version of a UAP task force. The UAP Task Force report highlights Russian and Chinese technology as a potential (although unsubstantiated) source for some UAP reports. The revelation that the Chinese are also actively monitoring UAP seems to make this explanation less likely.

Third, Moultrie and Bray have not investigated data from a prominent UAP case concerned with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) housed at Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The case from March 1967 featured a sighting of a glowing red orb over the base that reportedly took 10 nuclear ICBMs offline. While this historical case is certainly outside of the 2004–2021 purview of the UAP Task Force, it is inconceivable that our nation’s top two officials investigating UAP would not — at a minimum — review relevant background material. This lapse in preparation becomes even more alarming given the purported connection between UAPs and US nuclear facilities and technology.


The hearing featured a number of other notable exchanges, including a deferred discussion about Unidentified Submersible Objects to the classified briefing and Representative Gallagher (R-Wisc.) entering the Wilson-Davis memo into the congressional record. This as yet unsubstantiated memo supposedly details private military and defense contractor conversations about alien reproduction vehicles, crash retrievals, and other exotic topics.

Going forward, it is safe to assume that the Senate will want its piece of the hearing pie. After all, Senators Rubio (R-Fla.) and Gillibrand (D- N.Y.) were the driving force behind the new Pentagon UAP office. Perhaps we will just have to wait until the next hearing to learn more.

Katie Howland, MPH, is an award-winning humanitarian with experience managing programs related to genocide response, disability, literacy, and global health across the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. She has been recognized as a 2021 Out Leader by Out in National Security, a 2020 Aerie Changemaker, and is a member of Foreign Policy 4 America’s NextGen Initiative.

Katie Howland

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