A brief history of the Pentagon’s efforts to track and identify UFOs

From Project Blue Book to the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office.
Jeff Schogol Avatar
A sailor monitors radar. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan R. McDonald/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. military’s history of encounters with unidentified flying objects goes back to World War II. One of the first major UFO sightings came in 1942, when anti-aircraft batteries around Los Angeles opened fire at objects in the sky that they thought were Japanese aircraft. The Army determined later that a lost weather balloon had caused a false alarm.

Later in the war, pilots with the Army’s  415th Night Fighter Squadron reported seeing strange discs of light over Germany, which they dubbed “Foo Fighters” — a term that came from the Smokey Stover firefighter cartoon.

And two years after the war ended, a high-altitude balloon meant to monitor for Soviet atomic bomb tests crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. Based on an Army major’s comments, the local newspaper reported that a “flying saucer” had been recovered, giving birth to the modern phenomenon of UFO sightings.

While both military and civilian observers have pondered these encounters for decades, the Pentagon’s focused efforts to find out what UFOs are only started gaining momentum in 1947, when the Air Force launched Project Blue Book.

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Over the next 22 years, the Air Force investigated 12,618 sightings of UFOs, of which 701 remained unidentified when the service closed the project in 1969.

The Air Force ended Project Blue Book after the University of Colorado determined that none of the UFOs investigated by the service had posed a threat to national security; none of the UFOs showed evidence of technology that was more advanced than modern science; and investigators found no evidence that any of the UFOs were extraterrestrial craft, according to the Air Force.

Unidentified aircraft seen in May, 2022, through night vision equipment and an SLR camera. The DoD states that the unidentified object in this image were subsequently reclassified as unmanned aerial systems. (U.S. Navy)

With the military no longer looking into sightings of unidentified airborne objects, the task of investigating UFOs fell to local law enforcement.

But years later, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) helped to secure Congressional funding for the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP, which investigated unidentified aircraft sightings for the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2008 until 2012.

“The purpose of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) was to investigate foreign advanced aerospace weapon system applications, with future technology projections over the next 40 years, and to create a center of expertise for advanced aerospace technologies,” said Defense Department spokeswoman Sue Gough. “The goal was to help understand the threat posed by unconventional or leap-ahead aerospace vehicles and technologies that could have national security implications for the United States.”  

The Defense Intelligence Agency awarded a contract to Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, LLC, which worked with academics and scientists to provide a total of 38 technical reports between 2008 and 2012 that looked at several issues associated with unidentified aircraft, including their methods of propulsion and power generation as well as their armaments, Gough told Task & Purpose.

But in 2009, a review determined that the reports from AATIP were “of limited value” to the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the program ended when its funding expired in 2012, Gough said.

For the next six years, the Defense Department did not have a formal program to examine reports of unidentified aircraft, she said. During that time, the military services dealt with reports of UFOs the same way they did with reports of other safety or operations security incidents.

The U.S. military got back into the business of investigating unidentified airborne objects in August 2020 when then-Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist established a task force to detect, analyze, and catalog reports of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena — a new term for UFOs. The task force fell under the Navy’s office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security.

Screenshot of an unidentified “spherical object” that flew through a Navy training range in 2021. Video of the object was shown to Congress the following year. (Task & Purpose)

“The Department of Defense and the military departments take any incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace very seriously and examine each report,” an August 2020 Defense Department news release says.

The new task force was not a continuation of AATIP, Gough said. Since naval aviators had filed most of the reports of unidentified aircraft sightings, the Department of the Navy had taken the lead in investigating UFO incursions into military training ranges and designated airspace starting in 2018. The Defense Department began taking steps the following year to formalize the Navy’s work tracking unidentified aircraft.

By the time the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force was established, the Pentagon had already released three unclassified videos in April 2020 that showed three separate encounters between Navy pilots and UFOs: One in November 2004 and the other two in January 2015. The War Zone had also revealed that Navy pilots filed eight hazard reports between 2013 and 2019 about encounters with unidentified aircraft in restricted airspace off the East Coast.

Separately, in November 2004 two Navy F/A-18F Super Hornets from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz reported seeing a strange aircraft shaped like a Tic Tac that disappeared in front of two aircraft. Radar from the cruiser USS Princeton detected the aircraft 60 miles away just seconds later.

And in July 2019, several unidentified aircraft swarmed Navy ships off the coast of California that were later determined to be drones.

aim-9 sidewinder
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Leon Jones, 354th Aircraft Maintenance Unit weapons load crew chief, inspects an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile that was loaded onto an A-10C Thunderbolt II during a load crew of the quarter competition at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Oct. 7, 2016. (Airman Nathan H. Barbour/U.S. Air Force)

Since President Joe Biden took office, the Defense Department created the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, or AOIMSG, in November 2021 to ultimately replace the Navy’s UAP Task Force. The Group was later renamed the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, in July 2022.

Dr. Sean M. Kirkpatrick was named director of AARO, which falls under the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. Kirkpatrick was unable to provide a statement for this story, Gough said.

“It is vital to our national security and the safety of our military personnel that we maintain awareness of anomalous objects in all domains,” Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security Ronald S. Moultrie wrote in a July 2022 memo. “We must also keep pace with the development and employment of novel technology by our adversaries. In doing so, we are committed to providing maximum transparency while safeguarding classified information and controlled unclassified information. The establishment of the AARO is a significant step forward in developing the capabilities and processes that are necessary to achieve these goals.”

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have spoken out about the need for the military and intelligence community to work together to determine what UFOs — now called Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena — really are.

“The January ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] UAP report included more than 360 newly-identified reports, of which 163 were characterized as balloon or balloon-like entities and 171 were left uncharacterized,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in a statement to Task & Purpose. “I will continue working to ensure our armed services listen to our operators about the threat UAPs pose to our national security and to maintaining American air supremacy.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) released a video on Tuesday saying that reports of unidentified aircraft were dismissed for a long time because they were associated with UFOs and aliens.

“That’s not’s not my concern,” Rubio said in the video, which he shared on Twitter. “My concern is that some other country has developed a capability to monitor and enter our airspace and that we are not prepared to identify it. We’re looking for airplanes. We’re looking for missiles. We’re not looking for objects that don’t fit that criteria. And strategic surprise is the way a lot of wars start, and it’s the way a lot of wars and conflicts are lost.”

Following the recent shoot downs of a Chinese spy balloon and three other objects that have yet to be identified, Biden has directed National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to put together an interagency team to look at whether any policy changes need to be made regarding how the United States detects and analyzes unidentified aircraft, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.

Kirby also said the U.S. government is taking more of a Scully than Mulder approach to the UFO issue: “I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens, with respect to these craft,” he said.

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