The U.S. Navy has drafted a procedure to investigate and catalogue reports of unidentified flying objects coming in from its pilots. But the service doesn't expect to make the information public, citing privileged and classified reporting that is typically included in such files.
Joe Gradisher, a spokesman for the office of the deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare, said in a statement that the Navy expects to keep the information it gathers private for a number of reasons.
"Military aviation safety organizations always retain reporting of hazards to aviation as privileged information in order to preserve the free and honest prioritization and discussion of safety among aircrew," Gradisher said. "Furthermore, any report generated as a result of these investigations will, by necessity, include classified information on military operations."
He added, "Therefore, no release of information to the general public is expected."
The Navy's recent decision to draft formal guidelines for pilots to document encounters with unexplained aerial phenomena comes after the revelation in late 2017 that the Pentagon ran a secret "UFO" office that spent $22 million over five years to collect and analyze "anomalous aerospace threats." Funding for the office, known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP, officially ended in 2012, though operations continued.
Among other things, the program resulted in the release of footage from the cockpit cameras of military aircraft, which appeared to document oval-shape vessels that resemble flying Tic Tacs.
Reports of curious sightings from military aircraft aren't new. During World War II, Allied military pilots witnessed unexplained objects and fireballs that they dubbed "foo fighters." A number of official government investigations looked into such phenomena in the postwar period.
Now, the Navy has agreed to a more formalized process for cataloguing and investigating reports from pilots, a decision welcomed by former U.S. officials who want the military to take the matter seriously and remove the stigma in the armed forces of reporting such incidents.
Even though the Navy indicated that it has no plans in the imminent future to release the data, unclassified portions of the information or broad overviews of the findings could come out, according to Luis Elizondo, an intelligence officer who ran AATIP before leaving the Pentagon.
"If it remains strictly within classified channels, then the 'right person' may not actually get the information. The right person doesn't necessarily mean a military leader. It can be a lawmaker. It can be a whole host of different individuals," Elizondo said.
For example, in the future, the Navy theoretically could release broad statistics about the number of sightings and the results of the follow-up investigations without disclosing any classified information. Even if the information isn't made available to the public, it could be reported to Congress.
Frustrated that a potential security threat wasn't receiving the attention and funding he thought it deserved, Elizondo left the Pentagon in 2017 and joined a startup that promotes UFO research for scientific and entertainment purposes. The organization is collaborating on a six-part History Channel series due out this month that will explore Elizondo's work on the issue.
In a conversation with The Washington Post, Elizondo praised the Navy for changing its policy and taking a public stance and credited lawmakers on Capitol Hill for beginning to take the matter seriously. He said he expects the effort to lead to more information gathering and sharing at the Pentagon and ultimately a better understanding of the "enigma" reported by military pilots.
There is no agreed-upon explanation for some of the sightings reported to AATIP.
Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California, said that regardless of the explanation, it's positive that the military is collecting more information, because it could lead to a relevant discovery about technological equipment or activity by a potential adversary.
"Of course, it's a good thing," Shostak said. "Get more information. It costs a little bit of money, but not very much money. These days, you do worry - are the Chinese doing reconnaissance, are the Russians doing reconnaissance, on military activity?"
Shostak cautioned that sightings of unidentified objects, which military pilots have been reporting for decades, could have a more earthly explanation than activity by an extraterrestrial civilization.
"If they are here, if they are sailing the skies, you have got to say - they are really great house guests," Shostak said. "They never kill anybody . . . they don't even delay the flights out of Reagan."
Paul Sonne, The Washington Post