Updated: Aug 2
Washington Center, the air traffic unit controlling commercial airspace off the US East coast, had reported multiple unidentified radar contacts 50-miles out to sea, none of whom were talking to any US air traffic control agency.
Naturally curious and in a position to be of temporary assistance, our flight lead offered to investigate.
Soon, he had a single contact on his radar screen. He cued his target pod to it, then broadcast, “It’s a small pusher-puller. 13 miles. Right off the nose”.
“Tally”, said my pilot a short while later, and with that our flight lead took us down low.
“A drug smuggler?”, I asked over the intercom. “No, I don’t think so”, said my pilot without elaboration. I knew we were not far from Harvey Point, a CIA operating base and training facility, so perhaps he was thinking that it might be one of theirs.
While lead held above at a couple of thousand feet, we entered a slicing turn to intercept the target aircraft from behind. We flew past it, watching as it droned on a hundred feet above the waves.
“It’s a Skymaster”, we transmitted.
I couldn’t see any distinguishing features on it. It was just a light grey form that stood out against a dark grey ocean. It bore on, unaware or uninterested in the 60-foot jet fighter that cruised past it insipidly.
As we cleared its nose by a mile or so, we executed a bat turn directly in front. This so-called headbutt manoeuvre duly sent the signal to whoever it was that he was being watched.
But that was all we could do, so lead resumed the sortie as planned.
“Reference 180”, lead called, in response to which we turned south, climbing back up to 18,000’.
I’d photographed the Skymaster and was heads-down checking my shots when my pilot’s voice broke the silence, his head rapidly swinging to the right: “Whoa! A balloon just split the formation!”
As he said it, I looked up and to the right just in time to see the object pass by.
Beneath the silver balloon was tethered a dark object, but with the view of it being only fleeting – a second or two at most – it was impossible to know what.
The sighting was unexpected. Not because unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) are a rare sight for fighter aircrew operating in the Warning and Danger airspaces across the United States and further afield, but because the advanced electronic scanned array (AESA) radar in the jet I was flying had been disabled to avoid giving away its secrets to me, a civilian defense journalist.
This detail is important because it is the AESA radar that is usually first to detect these unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), and their small physical size means that it’s very difficult to pick them up visually without the radar cueing either a helmet sight or a target pod onto them.
But see it we did.
In the front seat, there was a dry resignation about what had just happened: “I don’t know how they manage it, but they’re always at our exact altitude”.
However it'd managed it, the balloon had just created a safety of flight violation. It was impossible to know how the big the balloon was, and therefore how close it was to us, but it was probably no more than one hundred feet away.
Safety of Flight
My experience with the balloon UAP reinforced the quiet consternation I had heard before we even took off that day.
In the bars and briefing rooms in fighter squadrons around the US, the rise of UAPs appearing in military airspace is increasingly being viewed as a safety of flight issue.
The US Navy says that between 2004 and 2021, there were eleven near misses with UAPs, some as close 50 feet. The matter is serious enough that Ryan Graves, a former US Navy F/A-18 pilot who repeatedly saw UAPs in 2015, has set up the Americans for Sage Aerospace organization to “help UAP witnesses come forward” and promote the open discussion of both the phenomena and the impact they are having on safety of flight.
As for me, I had spent twenty-four months quietly building an understanding of the UAP phenomenon and seeking to catalogue an increasing trend for certain fast jet communities to see them.
During that time, three specific observations struck me most prominently:
First, UAPs have been, and continue to be, seen with increasing regularity in sensitive locations in the US and abroad, and that for some pilots and aircrew the experience has become normalised to the point that it now sits only as a footnote in the debrief of a sortie.
The now-famous US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet target pod footage from 2004 (so-called Tic Tac) and 2015 (so-called Gimbal) is simply the cupola-size tip of a sizeable iceberg; below the surface are more than 800 sightings inhabiting a SECRET-level reporting system that feeds into the US Department of Defence All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO).
Of these 800, the head of AARO, Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick, estimates that there is only enough sensor and other data to investigate the single digit percentage that he describes as "anomalous".
Second, over the last couple of years, unusual aircraft and callsigns have been noted in the airspace at the same time as some of these UAPs have been observed. Sources tell me that classified vehicles such as the RQ-180 have been used to gather intelligence on the objects. The Skymaster we saw may have been part of that picture.
Third, the variety and the characteristics of UAPs has evolved since the Tic Tac and Gimbal tapes were recorded. Kirkpatrick, in his April Armed Services Committee hearing, presented data that 52% of the then-650 reports in AARO were spherical and grey or black in colour, but this masked an increasing number of small balloon-type sightings, some of which have not been publicly reported and yet pose as much of a safety of flight and national security risk.
Today, the Tic Tac and Gimbal UAPs – those with significant kinematic capabilities, such as being able to rapidly accelerate and traverse airspace at great speeds – have been joined by the likes of the one I saw.
Don’t be fooled, though: these are no ordinary balloons. They too have kinematic abilities that defy our understanding of both balloons and the methods of propelling them. As one individual who has executed close passes with these objects told me, “I don’t know how they do it, but they have the ability to suddenly get out of the way”. Let's just hope they keep doing so.
And now, most recently, balloon-type UAPs operating over the ocean have also started self-destructing when targeted by AESA radar. These are of particular interest to US intelligence agencies.
UAPs in the US and Abroad
Today, the US Government continues to keep not only citizens in the dark about the UAP issue, but also the military aircrew who are having to deal with them on a routine basis.
AARO has huge potential and Kirkpatrick appears genuine in his desire to seek the truth, but he is a career intelligence officer and is therefore part of the very apparatus that some in Congress believe is responsible for obfuscation and misdirection.
As for AARO’s reporting system, although ‘resolved’ UAP sighting reports can be accessed on a classified system (it is not clear to me who can log in to it), at least some fighter aircrew view it as a one-way system from which feedback cannot be obtained.
The net result is the creation of an environment that disincentivises the use of the system, and that leads to underreporting: “You really get the sense that no one cares”, one fighter pilot told me. “So, you end up asking yourself, what’s the point in reporting anything?”.
Graves, who wants to redress this imbalance, estimates that the number of reports made may be as low only five percent of the total sightings.
In other communities, according to Congressman Gaetz, pilots are discouraged from reporting what they have seen. This assertion was made after Geitz visited Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to discuss a UAP sighting with a pilot who had seen and photographed a large, blimp-like UAP in testing airspace off the Gulf coast.
Kirkpatrick and his team are aware of the reporting issue, just as they are of the challenges in investigating sightings where the reporter has not also provided sensor data to back up the claim. He has therefore appealed directly to operators to report what they see, and to include sensor data, too.
The latter can be a challenge where newer weapons systems such as the F-35 is concerned. Not only does this platform not make it easy to export sensor data, but to do so would require a system that can handle multiple classification levels, and the AARO is apparently not there, yet.
Back at the macro level, and in response to the continued stonewalling of attempts by the public to understand what is going on, the US Congress Committee for Oversight and Accountability held an open hearing last week, at the start of which Chairman Grothman observed that the US government is “continuing not to be forthright [on the UAP subject]” and that “between the Chinese balloon being shot down and two UAPs subsequently being shot down earlier this year… we have seen little clarity from the Biden Administration”.
When the Chinese giant spy balloon debacle took place in January 2023, the Administration proclaimed that it didn’t know anything about the UAP sightings US military aviators and some naval surface warfare units have been reporting for more than a decade.
It went further, adding that because military radars point outwards, not inwards, it was also unaware that balloon UAPs are commonplace inside US airspace.
These are difficult statements to believe.
In releasing the two F/A-18 videos in 2021, the Pentagon became the world’s leading purveyor of genuine UAP footage. It also released a drone-shot video of a UAP in the Middle East in July 2022. The idea that any sitting Administration would have no idea about any of this defies belief.
But whatever recalcitrance the US Government is guilty of in talking about the phenomenon pales into insignificance compared to that of the British Government, whose head in the sand approach is remarkable indeed.
My FOI request to the British MoD for data on UAPs appearing in UK military training airspace between 2020 and 2023 resulted a “no records found” response.
The secretariat who wrote the response also provided a boilerplate addendum: “In over 50 years, no sighting reported to the Department has indicated the existence of any military threat to the United Kingdom and it is deemed more valuable to prioritise MOD staff towards other Defence-related activities”.
If that is intended to end the conversation, the MoD needs to try harder.
At the highest levels in the United States, UAPs have been characterised as being a military threat. So, what’s different about the ones in the UK? Who has determined that these objects are not a military threat? And if we don’t know what they are, how do we know they are not? The equation for a threat – capability x intent – is simple to solve, so who’s been doing the dodgy maths?
The MoD should at least be sharing what’s going on with Royal Air Force fighter aircrew, some of whom have been observing kinematic UAPs for a long time.
One RAF Typhoon pilot observed to me that few went as far as reporting their sightings, and those who did “were ridiculed… and that killed the conversation about these things”.
“What do the people who did the ridiculing think now? Now that so many have seen them?”, I asked.
“Well, they’ve got egg on their faces, haven’t they!”, he said with amusement.
The British Government’s position is all the more odd given indications that sightings in the UK are, or can be, just as endemic as those in the US.
For example, a rash of sightings reportedly took place in UK training airspace through the winter months of 2021, just as NATO started building its presence and mobilising assets in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
And in the UK, it's not only aircrew who are seeing the UAPs.
Swanwick Mil, the air traffic unit that provides a service for the military training areas off the East coast of the UK, can detect the objects on its own ground-based radar systems.
Indeed, in late 2021, Swanwick Mil would regularly call out “range foulers” to USAFE (US Air Forces Europe) and RAF fighters operating in these areas.
The range fouler call signalled that there was an unauthorised aerial object in the training areas, and this would force the fighter crews to pause or terminate training while they investigated the UAP.
UAPs off the coast of East Anglia were so prevalent that, “We saw them every day. Everybody in the squadron saw them”, according to one individual who was flying out of RAF Lakenheath, home to USAFE’s AESA-equipped F-15E Strike Eagles.
For the men and women airborne in the UK’s training airspace when the range fouler calls came, radar vectors from Swanwick to intercept the uninvited vehicles were followed by AESA radar tracks that in turn led to target pod tracks and then, finally, visual sightings of UAPs.
What the crews saw with their eyeballs and TV sensors saw were variously described as “the size of a coffee table, round, dark grey, and covered in antennas”.
Like the objects in the Hornet videos, these vehicles manoeuvred in relation to the intercepting fighters, were able to hover, and could traverse vast swathes of airspace at seemingly impossible rates of acceleration.
They also showed no observable means of propulsion (heat efflux or similar), but they were different from the objects in the 2004 and 2015 videos in that they had very low IR signatures.
In fact, there was not enough infrared contrast between UAP and the ambient air to even be able to track them on the target pods. For this, the crews had to switch to the TV sensor.
At around the same timeframe, my sources say that a swarm of UAPs harangued a formation of US Navy ships as they sailed through waters off the east coast of the UK.
This apparently proved to be enough for the US, which dispatched a classified asset to the region to investigate further and to collect data. The results of that investigation were not shared.
18 months later, aviators seeing these objects on both sides of the Atlantic appear still to be unaware of their source or point of origin or destination.
One of the US Navy Hornet crews who went public on the Tic Tac- and Gimble-era sightings reported seeing the object disappear into the sea. I have been told by other Navy sources that they too have seen the same.
Some crews have postulated the UAPs may be launched from ships and other ocean-going vessels far out to sea. It’s an interesting hypothesis because it assumes that the objects are range-limited – how do we know that if we don’t understand their method of propulsion?
Ideally, some information on all the above should have already come to light.
You would certainly have thought so given that swarms of these objects have been observed in the Nellis range complexes north of Las Vegas, the place where America’s most secret aerospace projects often take flight.
And if that were not enough, UAPs have also been observed hovering at medium altitudes above airbases in the US, seemingly with impunity. In some instances, this has been observed with regularity over a period of many months – not exactly unpredictable pattern of life stuff.
If more impetus were needed to get the media asking more questions and the government behaving with greater transparency, then the shoot down of three UAPs in one week in February ought to have done it.
Hot on the heels of the Chinese Spy Balloon headlines, Feb 10, Feb 11 and Feb 12 saw vehicles shot down by US Air Force F-22 and F-16 fighters over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron, respectively.
All three vehicles appear to have had some of the hallmarks of the highly-kinematic UAPs.
And yet there has been neither confirmation that any wreckage has been found, nor any video released of the objects or their shootdown, despite that fact that the former should have been possible and the latter is guaranteed to exist.
In the incredulous words of one Congressman at last week’s oversight hearing, “We have high-resolution video of Russian Flankers dropping flares on our drones, but there’s none of these UAPs?”.
At the time of the shootdown over Alaska, Jon Kirby of the White House National Security Council, stated that the government expected to be able to recover the wreckage of the object, describing only as the “size of small car and no significant payload”. So, where is the wreckage?
The national security implications of having UAPs operating in sovereign airspace are obvious. Only this week, Kirby went on record saying that the sightings are now so ubiquitous that it is impacting the military’s ability to use its dedicated training ranges.
So, the Biden Administration faces a dilemma.
It has a moral duty to tell the people of the United States something about what these things are, but there are only three viable things it can say: the UAPs are foreign, and the US doesn’t have the same capabilities; they are foreign, and US has an equivalent capability; or they don’t know what they are, and the US does not have an equivalent.
Or it could just stay quiet and wait, aided by a mainstream media that is largely ambivalent to the story, for people to simply lose interest.
What are the UAPs doing?
At the February press conference, Kirby was adamant that the US Government could not confirm what the UAP objects are or even who owns them.
Their purpose is also a mystery to the Biden Administration, although the President has said he did not believe them to be surveillance assets.
This view is at odds with aircrew I have spoken to, all of whom believe the objects are exactly that: ISR assets, working to gather electronic, visual and signals intelligence.
If the ISR theory holds true, then the objects may form part of a kill chain – the vernacular that describes how a nation finds, identifies, targets and engages something or someone – that can be employed against targets deep within sovereign airspace.
Real-time or delayed transmission of a UAP’s ISR recordings could be aided by any sort of relay station that could inhabit near space (between 60,000 feet and 330,000 feet) and remain in a geo-stationary orbit. Something like a large balloon, perhaps?
The very recent discovery that the smaller, agile balloon type UAPs can now self-destruct (or are now using the option to do so), as well as obvious materials development that has led to the near-elimination of the kinematic UAP’s IR signature since the Tic Tac and Gimbal objects were filmed, suggests they are operated by an adversary nation that is responding to a growing awareness of them, an increased ability to detect them, and a developing desire to shoot them down and exploit them.
What is puzzling is the apparent lack of response to the UAP’s clear vulnerability to AESA radar.
It is AESA technology that is widely credited with being the reason for the surge in UAP sightings – the working hypothesis is that these UAPs may have been operating for years during the days of the mechanically scanned radar, but that radar technology was not able to detect them.
AESA changes that and there is, I am told, something significant about the characteristic of the UAP radar signature, but the details are classified.
Perhaps this vulnerability is the reason UAPs use electronic attack (jamming) in response to radar detection and tracking. From the “first” sighting by Navy Commander David Fraver and his wingman in 2004, to the Feb 2023 Alaska shootdown, the kinematic (and now the balloon type) UAPs have used EA.
In last week’s hearing, Fraver recalled that they comprehensively jammed his radar, an older mechanically-scanned array APG-73: “Range, velocity, aspect… they stole it all”.
Meanwhile, Gaetz has said that in the recent incident in Florida, the aircraft lost both radar and target pod as soon as the interception with the UAP brought the pilot within visual range of the object.
Where are they from?
Many who have grown used to seeing UAPs on a regular basis believe they are either part of a US black programme, or they are Chinese.
I am told that diplomatic and military lines of communication with Russia (prior to the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022) had established to satisfaction of Western intelligence communities that Russia is similarly in the dark about the matter, which makes the China argument more compelling.
In recent years, China has invested heavily in technologies that allow it to dominate near space, and high-tech aerospace companies around the world now compete for contracts in that domain.
In fact, this is a matter of public record, with the vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences openly discussing the military and commercial benefits of airships, and in particular espousing the obvious benefits of being closer to objects of interest from near-space than a sensor suite carried on a microsatellite in low earth orbit. And Chinese state media calls near-space balloons “the darling of long-range and rapid strike weapons”.
One wonders, then, whether the investment in large balloons comes off the back of the rapid and low observable targeting capability that the UAPs provide.
The possibility they are part of black US programme also has credence.
One former Air Force officer with a background in strategic ISR told me, “I wouldn’t assume, if these are operated by the intelligence community, that the four-star Chief of Staff of the Air Force has actually been briefed in on them”, giving credence to statements by the NORAD and the Air Force that they do not know what the objects are.
And the fact the UAPs have been seen in the most secure and most sensitive airspace in the world – the Nellis Tactical Training Ranges and Area 51 – might suggest a degree of complicity.
When it comes to both inadvertent and deliberate exposure of black programmes to the public, the United States has a track record of allowing the general public to go where its imagination takes it.
The SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 Dragonlady reconnaissance aircraft are examples of black technology that were inadvertently exposed to public view on rare occasions early on in their histories, and which left tell-tale signs that the public couldn’t quite fathom (airline pilots seeing something flying higher or faster than they believed possible, for example).
The CIA, which studiously never sought to misinform, was quite happy to allow the imaginations of the public to run wild and this approach formed part of the modus operandi.
The suggestion that the UAPs cannot be man-made because it would be impossible to keep such a secret is an interesting one, but the United States has certainly been able to keep military secrets over decades long periods.
For example, the Boeing Bird of Prey and Northrop TACIT BLUE are just two black programmes that were very well-kept secrets right up until their declassification many years after their last flights.
And if you can cast your mind back as far as the 1990s, you will recall a raft of reports about “doughnut on a rope” contrail patterns over the Nellis ranges, presumably the signature of some sort of ram propulsion, hypersonic vehicle. When was the last time you heard of one? That’s another secret that is evidently still being kept.
Back to the here and now, though, more public disclosure and discourse on the subject of UAPs is much needed.
For every one of the 800 sightings in the secret AARO database, how many sightings went unreported? Is it really as bad as only five percent or so, as Graves has guesstimated?
And how long should military – and, in growing numbers, commercial – aviators continue to accept that UAPs can operate in controlled airspace at will, when the odds of a collision increase over time?
As I wake up and log in to my messages, there’s a new one waiting for me:
“Saw more objects just hovering stationary above the base today”.
“Really? How high?”, I ask.
“You report it?”