The U.S. military’s official acknowledgment of videos of strange flying objects taken by Navy pilots has brought the debate over UFOs into the mainstream like never before.
Later this month, the Pentagon is expected to release an unclassified report on the mysterious sightings, which it officially calls unidentified aerial phenomenon, or UAPs. But the disclosures may not have been possible without Hawaii’s late Sen. Daniel Inouye.
Inouye played a quiet, but critical role in reigniting interest in the phenomena, which have been the subject of speculation and conspiracy theories for decades. Inouye was one of a trio of senators who came together in 2007 to secretly funnel $22 million to the Pentagon’s clandestine budget for UFO research.
The clear skies over Hawaii and the surrounding Pacific ocean make it an ideal place for stargazing — and spotting strange objects.
That became a popular pastime last year after the coronavirus pandemic stranded millions of people at home, leading to a surge in reports of UFO sightings nationwide. The nonprofit National UFO Reporting Center said it received more than 7,000 reports in 2020, compared with more than 6,000 the previous year.
Hawaii had two high-profile incidents last year.
On Oct. 24, a flurry of lights appeared in the night sky over Hawaii. University of Hawaii astronomer Richard Wainscoat said people were likely watching the reentry into the atmosphere of a spent rocket booster used to launch Venezuelan satellite Venesat-1 into space in 2008.
On Dec. 29 several Oahu residents reported a mysterious blue glowing object in the sky that made international headlines. It was spotted on the Leeward coast and caught on video before disappearing at sea.
The Federal Aviation Administration had no records of any registered aircraft — or anything else on its radar — following the object’s trajectory that night and no other official explanation was given. But internet sleuths believe it may have been a kite lit up by LED lights.
It’s not just stargazers interested in strange sightings over the Pacific.
Discussion about UFOs, often linked in pop culture and science fiction novels to aliens from other planets, was long taboo due to the secrecy involved and the stigma that often met those who claimed to have seen one. But the issue has emerged into the mainstream after the Pentagon last year deemed the UAPs a potential national security threat and announced it was forming a task force to study them.
In September, Japan’s Ministry of Defense also gave its military pilots new guidelines for reporting and cataloging UFO sightings. Japan’s then-Defense Minister Taro Kono previously had been publicly skeptical about UFOs, but changed his tune after a meeting with U.S. officials in Guam last summer.
This month, the Chinese government confirmed that its military is tracking what it calls “unidentified air conditions,” which it said were being reported in Chinese airspace with increasing frequency.
Almost all of the recent videos and material the Pentagon has declassified have involved sightings during Navy operations over the last two decades. A significant number involved Navy personnel serving in the Hawaii-based Pacific Fleet’s area of responsibility.
The most well known is depicted in a now declassified video from 2004 taken by Navy pilots who encountered what they called a large “Tic Tac” like object over the Pacific that moved in ways that confounded them.
Officials familiar with the Pentagon’s upcoming report recently told The New York Times that investigators found no evidence that any of these cases involved extraterrestrials but would not rule it out completely. The Times reported some analysts believe some sightings are Chinese or Russian technology, possibly including experimental hypersonic systems.
“When I start to hear mentions of hypersonics and even hear references to China involved in all this, then that provides perfect cover for the services to start asking for more money to invest in new experimental technology,” said Dan Grazier, a fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “I mean, that’s just classic threat inflation.”
In an analysis published in April Tyler Rogoway, editor-in-chief of the defense news outlet The War Zone, argued that many of the known cases indicate that a “very terrestrial adversary” is using “relatively simple technologies — drones and balloons — and making off with what could be the biggest intelligence haul of a generation.”
Pacific Fleet officials declined to discuss if they’re concerned that either high or low tech machines have compromised any of the fleet’s activities, saying that the Navy’s UAP task force is the lead agency in discussing incidents.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, who chairs the Senate’s subcommittee overseeing the Navy, said in an emailed statement that she is withholding judgment and would “review the Department of Defense’s findings on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena when they are published.”
Military sightings and investigations of UFOs aren’t new. Near the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy studied the effects of nighttime flying on pilots and concluded most sightings were a mix of optical illusions, natural phenomena and pilots’ minds playing tricks on them at high speeds and elevations.
But in some cases, there really were strange objects in the sky. The Japanese military sent more than 9,000 incendiary “balloon bombs” across the Pacific via jet streams in hopes of starting wildfires in North America during World War II. Civilians who saw them described them as “flying jellyfish.”
U.S. officials publicly denied the existence of the balloon bombs and censored news reports, even after one killed six picnickers on the Oregon coast, only admitting their existence after the war.
The American public’s fascination with UFOs took off after World War II when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine circular objects flying near Mount Rainier in Washington State in June 1947. Newspapers began calling them “flying saucers.”
The Air Force commissioned a classified study called Project Sign to see if they could be advanced Soviet weapons. By 1952 the Air Force expanded its investigation with Project Blue Book, which investigated military and civilian sightings.
Investigators looked into thousands of sightings, including by military pilots stationed in the Pacific.
But the U.S. government’s search for answers was often entangled with efforts to hide its own newly developed technologies. UFOs became largely associated with the deserts of the American Southwest where the Air Force and CIA tested stealthy spy planes and other surveillance technology.
Blue Book investigators cross referenced reported sightings with flight records, finding more than half of the sightings they investigated coincided with secret test flights. But they didn’t tell civilians. In some cases the Air Force encouraged stories about aliens to deflect attention from the tests.
Blue Book investigated 12,000 cases — 701 of which it labeled “unexplained.” The Air Force ultimately concluded unexplained cases didn’t involve Soviet weapons and defunded Blue Book in 1969.
But after retiring, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, an Air Force veteran, was outspoken about his belief that the government knew more than it was letting on.
In 2007, Inouye, then-Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Republican Ted Stevens, a former fighter pilot, joined forces to steer funding into the Pentagon’s so-called Black Budget for UFO research.
Reid, who is from Nevada, home to the Air Force’s infamous Area 51 test site, recalled that the three moved forward despite the stigma. “My staff warned me not to be seen to engage on the topic,” he wrote in The New York Times last month, adding that he “politely ignored them.”
Inouye’s support was pivotal. He was the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over all the Senate’s discretionary spending legislation. By putting it in the Black Budget, the three were able to bypass a floor debate in the Senate about where the funds were going.
With new funds to revive the research, the Pentagon formed the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Answering to the Defense Intelligence Agency, AATIP investigated dozens of sightings during military operations.
“I believed that an official taboo regarding the frank discussion of encounters could harm our national security and stymie opportunities for technical advancement,” Reid said. “Which is why, along with Senators Stevens and Inouye, I helped create that secret Pentagon program in 2007.”
But the program was controversial for many reasons, including the involvement of Robert Bigelow, a Nevada billionaire, UFO enthusiast and political donor with close ties to Reid. His company Bigelow Aerospace received about $20 million to conduct much of the research.
Inouye died in 2012, and the Pentagon officially defunded AATIP the same year.
But the military continued to document numerous instances of strange objects detected by sailors. The Pacific Fleet investigated a summer 2019 incident in which several mysterious triangular objects followed Navy destroyers for several nights near California. Internal documents described them as drones.
In August the Pentagon announced the existence of a successor to AATIP, the Navy-led Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. As part of its COVID-19 relief package Congress included a provision requiring that the government compile an unclassified report on its UFO findings.
The report will be available to the public, but additional classified information will be included for lawmakers. While many are eager to see its contents, there are still calls for caution — and skepticism.
“Since we don’t know what these things are, people can make all kinds of claims about them,” said Grazier. “And they could be used for justification for a whole bunch of things.”
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