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UFO experts on what the Pentagon footage really means

Alien enthusiasts are freaking out over the declassified videos of ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ released this week – two specialists explain what they could be

On Monday (April 27), the US Department of Defense released three declassified videos of UFOs. The clips, which were previously leaked in 2007 and 2017, were reportedly shared to “clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage was real”.

Captured by the US Navy, one video was taken in November 2004, while the other two were shot in January 2015. The black and white footage shows naval aviators tracking objects as they hurtle through the sky – in two videos, the pilots can be heard expressing excitement and disbelief at what they were seeing. “Oh my gosh, dude, wow,” one pilot exclaims. “Look at it fly!” In another video, the UFO appears to rotate, as the pilot declares: “There’s a whole fleet of them. They’re all going against the wind.”

The Pentagon has confirmed that the “aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterised as ‘unidentified’”, admitting that the US has no idea what the Navy captured flying over the country’s airspace. Speculation has been raised about why the footage has been declassified now, and whether the decision to do so relates to public behaviour and interest during the current pandemic.

“It’s not quite the ‘disclosure’ that the UFO community dream about,” says Nick Pope, who investigated UFOs for the UK government’s Ministry of Defence in the early 90s, “but we’ve come a long way from the usual official denials and debunking.” Pope does, however, question the timing of the release. “I’m generally skeptical about conspiracy theories,” he tells Dazed, “but the timing is decidedly interesting. With the world focusing on coronavirus stories, the suspicion will be that this official confirmation has been slipped out on a ‘good day to bury bad news’.”

Conversely, David Clarke, curator of The National Archives UFO project and lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, believes the footage has been declassified now simply because of public pressure. “People have been bombarding the US Navy and Air Force with Freedom of Information requests asking for (the videos) to be declassified,” he explains, “that’s why they’ve released them.” 

Although the videos have been in the public domain for over a decade, it wasn’t until last year that the Pentagon confirmed the authenticity of the footage, leading to questions about the secrecy surrounding the clips. “From the military point of view, they don’t want to reveal things about technological capabilities that enemy countries might use to their advantage,” Clarke tells Dazed. “But the trouble is, by covering that stuff up it makes people suspect that they’re hiding something more spectacular than it actually is.” 

Pope believes that the reason UFO phenomena is typically denied by governments is “because of the embarrassment that comes from the implication that, despite our sophisticated air defence network, there are things in our skies that we can’t identify”. He describes it as a “reverse cover-up”, explaining that governments are “keen to avoid people realising they don’t have all the answers”. 

“(UFO phenomena is typically denied by governments) because of the embarrassment that there are things in our skies that we can’t identify” – Nick Pope

Although the Pentagon has labelled the aerial phenomena in the videos as ‘unidentified’, Pope thinks it’s “inconceivable that the briefing (with the president and senators) would stop at ‘we don’t know’”. He explains: “I know from my own government work that the military intelligence community will have a best current assessment, which was presumably shared with Donald Trump and others. The Pentagon has refused to be drawn on that point, but there may be further revelations ahead.”

With the Pentagon supposedly stumped, what do experts make of the UFOs in the footage? “It’s impossible to say,” laughs Clarke, “they are truly unidentified flying objects. I suspect what they are is some kind of advanced drone that the American Navy or Air Force are testing out, and maybe even deploying without telling one of the services what they’re up to, just to see how good they are at evading detection. Anyone who works in the military knows that there’s different levels of secrecy and ‘need to know’. A fighter pilot wouldn’t necessarily be told about top-secret experiments.”

Pope has a number of possible theories. He suggests the UFO sighting could in fact be “a combination of pilot misperception, radar glitches, and forward-looking infrared camera anomalies”. Alternatively, there’s a possibility that the UFO is actually “non-state actor technology”, putting Elon Musk forward as an example of someone who might have unidentified objects travelling through the sky. Pope also repeats Clarke’s theory that the footage shows “US black project technology being blind-tested on the fleet to see how they react”, or “foreign military technology – for example, a hypersonic drone – from a country like Russia or China”.

Pope’s final two possibilities are more leftfield. The first is that “the whole narrative has been constructed as part of an intelligence operation or psychological operation, for unknown purposes”, while the last is what everyone is here for: “something genuinely ‘other’, for example, extraterrestrial”.

Thanks to science fiction literature and films, UFOs will forever be linked to the search for extraterrestrial life. Shortly after the Pentagon released the footage on Monday, UFOs were trending on Twitter, with the majority of tweets making reference to aliens. “There is absolutely no evidence that anything that’s ever been called a UFO is actually from outer space,” Clarke asserts. “The most logical explanation is either that it’s a natural phenomenon, like ball lightning or plasma, or that it’s some kind of advanced military activity that’s being tested.”

“There is absolutely no evidence that anything that’s ever been called a UFO is actually from outer space” – David Clarke

Following the Pentagon’s declassification, former Senate leader Harry Reid said the footage “only scratches the surface of research and materials available”, adding that the US “needs to take a serious, scientific look at this and any potential national security implications”. According to Clarke, UFOs alone don’t “pose any kind of threat to civilisation” – the danger actually comes from the reactions to unidentified aerial phenomena. “If you send something to another country in secrecy, then there’s the danger that it could trigger off a potential nuclear exchange,” Clarke tells Dazed. “There are obviously risks that if we don’t know what these things flying around are, they could start a war of some kind. But I think that risk is very, very low.”

Clarke hopes that the declassification of the footage will lead to more research into UFOs, as opposed to simply speculation about extraterrestrial life. “I hope that scientists will put some time aside and think, ‘this is something we should look into’. The trouble is that people are so afraid of not being taken seriously because of the link with aliens, but that leads to a vicious circle – the more they don’t take an interest in it, the less it’s taken seriously.”

He concludes: “Nine out of ten times, you can find an explanation for it. But there’s always that tiny percentage that remains stubbornly unidentified, and that’s why the mystery lives on.”

Read the Department of Defense’s full statement here, and watch the footage above.