Yes, it appears fast-flying, maneuverable somethings have been buzzing the U.S. military’s ships and planes in recent years.
Right now, it’s impossible to say for sure what these Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, as the Pentagon refers to them, actually are. But we can say with reasonable certainty what they’re not.
They’re not aliens.
There’s a long list of reasons why the UAPs aren’t extraterrestrial. Most of them hinge on a simple philosophical concept: Occam’s razor, the principle of parsimony, named for 14th-century Franciscan friar and philosopher William of Occam.
In short, the simplest explanation is always the best. And in the case of the Pentagon’s mysterious aerial stalkers, the simplest explanations don’t include E.T.
“The amount of energy it would take to travel the interstellar void is enormous,” Michael Varnum, an Arizona State University psychologist who studies possible first-contact scenarios, told The Daily Beast. “You’d do all that to visit the Navy every few weeks?”
The current UFO hype took years to build up steam. It started back in 2004, when Navy Cmdr. David Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight were in the cockpit of their F/A-18F fighter flying a routine training mission 100 miles off the Southern California coast.
A radar operator on a nearby Navy warship radioed the aviators, directing Fravor and Slaight to investigate a mysterious object that had appeared on the ship’s screens.
Sensors showed the unidentified flying object speeding down toward the ocean from a lofty altitude of 80,000 feet, briefly hovering at 20,000 feet then descending to wavetop height. As the crew closed within visual range of the UFO, they were startled by what they saw.
It appeared to be an aircraft of some sort. Oval in shape. Around 40 feet long. It hovered over the water, churning up waves and foam. Fravor steered the F/A-18 directly at the object. Abruptly the UFO sped away, Fravor told The New York Times. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
He was, he said, “pretty weirded out.” “I have no idea what I saw. It had no plumes, wings or rotors and outran our F-18s.”
Navy pilots on several other occasions in recent years had similar run-ins with UFOs. Cockpit videos of the encounters have racked up millions of views on social media. Amid a surge of interest in possible alien visitors, news broke that a trio of powerful U.S. senators for years channeled tens of millions of dollars into a military-run office that investigated UFO sightings.
The Pentagon has released more videos of UFOs—er, UAPs. And later this month the military plans to release to Congress an unclassified report on the mysterious objects. The report is inconclusive, according to The New York Times, which obtained a copy.
“The report determines that a vast majority of more than 120 incidents over the past two decades did not originate from any American military or other advanced U.S. government technology,” the Times explained. “That determination would appear to eliminate the possibility that Navy pilots who reported seeing unexplained aircraft might have encountered programs the government meant to keep secret.”
“But that is about the only conclusive finding in the classified intelligence report,” the Times added. “Senior officials briefed on the intelligence conceded that the very ambiguity of the findings meant the government could not definitively rule out theories that the phenomena observed by military pilots might be alien spacecraft.”
Scientists who specialize in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, rolled their eyes. “The leaked report is just perfect,” Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the California-based SETI Institute, told The Daily Beast. “The skeptics will keep on being skeptical, and the believers will continue to believe—and hope for disclosure. Like vanilla ice cream, this report pleases everyone!”
But count scientists as skeptics. Not because they don’t believe in extraterrestrial life. In fact, it’s noncontroversial in the SETI discipline that Earth life isn’t the only life in the universe.
Space is vast. Earth-like planets are plentiful. The chemical building blocks of organic life are all over the place. “Why should we be the only ones?” Martin Dominik, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, asked The Daily Beast.
But SETI experts, who have devoted their lives to finding alien life, expect first contact to come one of two ways. Either we dig up microbes in the soil of Mars or Venus or some moon, or our radio receivers finally detect signals emanating from some very far-away technological civilization.
They don’t expect aliens to announce themselves by secretly traveling galactic distances, plunging into Earth’s atmosphere then zeroing in on the U.S. Navy and flying loop-de-loops around its ships and planes before zipping away without making any effort to communicate.
“I have a hard time imagining the psyche or culture of an alien civilization that would invest so much in way of resources to see what the Navy is up to,” Arizona State University's Varnum said.
Avi Loeb, a Harvard physicist, warned against trusting too much in eyewitness accounts of UAPs by military personnel. It’s not that pilots and radar-operators are lying. But they’re not scientists. And their senses and memories can’t replace rigorous scientific study.
“It would be prudent to progress forward with our finest instruments, rather than examine past reports,” Loeb said. “Instead of declassifying documents that reflect decades-old technologies used by witnesses with no scientific expertise, it would be far better to deploy state-of-the-art recording devices, such as wide-field cameras on telescopes or audio sensors, at the sites where the reports came from and search for unusual signals.”
“A scientific expedition focused on reproducing old reports would be far more valuable in unraveling the mysteries behind them,” Loeb added. “Its most important purpose would be to inject scientific rigor and credibility into the discussion.”
If we apply Occam’s razor, there are much simpler explanations for what has been harassing the American fleet. There are two that stand out. Some of the UAPs could be high-performance drones that some foreign power—that is to say, Russia or China—is using to spy on U.S. forces.
There’s ample precedent. Consider Iran’s own UFO fever starting more than a decade ago. Repeated sightings of speedy, unidentified flying objects got the Iranian air force so worked up that it sent its best planes, American-made F-14s, to investigate.
Tragically, one of those F-14s crashed in January 2012, killing both crew. Many Iranians genuinely believed a UFO had shot it down.
Tehran came around to the idea that its UFOs were, in fact, American spy drones. It undoubtedly helped Iranian officials reach that conclusion when, in December 2011, a U.S. Air Force Sentinel drone—a flying wing that’s not unlike a small-scale, pilotless B-2 stealth bomber—crashed on the Iran-Afghanistan border, apparently while surveilling Iranian nuclear facilities.
Flash forward a decade. Drones are faster, more maneuverable and harder to detect than ever before. The Air Force has quietly deployed a scaled-up spy drone that’s similar to the Sentinel but even more sophisticated. The so-called RQ-180 might have broken cover late last year when a photographer in California spotted something flying high overhead.
It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that Russia or China, or both, possesses new spy drones of its own. It’s obvious why these countries would send their drones to snoop around American ships and planes. It’s less obvious how these drones could outfly the Navy’s supersonic fighters.
But then, the more elusive UAPs might not be drones. Or, for that matter, anything at all. The other most plausible explanation for UAPs is that they’re sensor artifacts. Weird blips on the screens of multi-million-dollar radars and infrared scanners whose fidelity is so great that they might sometimes manifest objects that aren’t really there.
Even if drones and sensor artifacts can’t account for all UAPs, there’s no good reason to leap to aliens as an explanation, Wade Roush, a science lecturer and author of the nonfiction book Extraterrestrials, told The Daily Beast.
“It might turn out that there's a tiny residue of truly unexplained cases,” Roush said. “For some of those cases the extraterrestrial hypothesis might be one of the last ones you're left with. But I predict that this residue will be vanishingly small. And even after investigators have ruled out a bunch of other explanations, ‘aliens’ is still so far-fetched that it's just about the last possibility you'd want to consider. It's only slightly more plausible than ‘time-travelers’ or ‘Atlanteans.’”
But Varnum for one said he appreciates why so many people are eager to see the UAPs as off-world visitors.
Life on Earth is hard. The more that climate change, a global fascist resurgence and the ongoing pandemic drag us down, the more we look to the stars for escape. “It creates some sense of mystery and excitement in the world,” Varnum said.
Just because we want to believe in UFOs doesn’t mean we should, however. If it’s aliens you want, try following the actual scientific discipline that is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI scientists truly believe they’re on the cusp of discovering alien life.
“Within 20 to 30 years we’ll have space telescopes… that are going to be able to detect biosignatures in the atmospheres of exo-planets,” Douglas Vakoch, who heads the METI International research organization in San Francisco, told The Daily Beast. METI stands for “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”
An exo-planet is just a faraway planet. There are uncountable millions of them. Once we can efficiently scan them for life, the search for alien life could accelerate. A lot. “There’s no reason not to know by 2050, one way or another,” Vakoch said.
If and when we do know, it’ll be because of clear, verifiable evidence based on repeatable experimentation. No fleeting glimpses of odd objects on Navy radar screens. No breathless testimony from spooked pilots. No ambiguous government reports.
There’s probably life out there. But it’s almost certainly not taking joyrides around our aircraft carriers.