Congress held a rare public hearing Tuesday into the existence of what the government calls unidentified aerial phenomena, more commonly known as UFOs, a subject of scrutiny by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies following an increase in sightings by military personnel and pilots in recent years.
That effort, revealed in 2017, has collected eyewitness accounts, including from naval aviators who said they saw flying objects that seemed to lack any visible means of propulsion and defied human understanding of aerodynamics and physics.
The hearing was the first time in more than 50 years that U.S. officials have provided testimony for public consumption about their investigation of UFOs. The Air Force closed its inquiry into the subject, Project Blue Book, in 1970.
“We know that our service members have encountered unidentified aerial phenomena,” Ronald S. Moultrie, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, told the bipartisan panel of lawmakers. “We are committed to an effort to determine their origins.”
While the hearing marked a significant moment in the government’s efforts to reveal more of what it knows about unexplained objects in the sky, it was short on revelations. Scott W. Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence, played a brief video of what he described as “a spherical object” with a reflective surface as it zoomed past the cockpit of a U.S. F-18 fighter jet.
“I do not have an explanation for what this specific object is,” Bray said.
Lawmakers asked Bray to replay the video and pause on the fast-moving object, which was difficult given its speed.
The video was newly declassified and aired for the first time at the hearing. Earlier footage from naval aircraft and ships has shown other unexplained phenomena observed for longer periods.
One of the most famous of those sightings, taken by jets from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in 2004, shows an object that appears to dart through the air in many directions at tremendous speed. UFO researchers have dubbed it the Tic Tac because of its capsule-like shape.
The highly trained pilots who witnessed the object — which Bray said remains unexplained — have said publicly that they were baffled and reluctant to discuss their experience, owing to a persistent culture of stigmatizing aviators who report UFOs.
Bray and Moultrie said the military wants to change that culture. In recent years, personnel have been encouraged to report sightings, and the military now has a standardized system to track and analyze information.
“The message is clear: If you see something, you need to report it,” Bray said.
Sightings by military personnel have been especially high, leading some to speculate that military equipment and facilities may be of particular interest to whomever is behind the unidentified craft, including a foreign military.
But a 2021 report by the U.S. intelligence community concluded the clustering of sightings around U.S. military facilities may result from “a collection bias” given the higher level of attention the military has paid, as well as greater numbers of sophisticated sensors in those areas that may be able to capture the unidentified objects on camera or detect signals emanating from them.
Bray said that the United States has reports from nonmilitary sources, as well, but he did not elaborate.
Officials have said that the unidentified objects could pose a threat to national security. That has helped to spur more openness about the subject. In their testimony, the Pentagon officials focused largely on the potential danger the objects pose to military equipment and personnel, and steered away from speculation about whether the craft were extraterrestrial.
Bray noted that U.S. military pilots have had “11 near-misses” with UFOs. There have been no collisions, he said. He added that the military has never attempted to communicate with the objects or fired on them.
Officials say they are doubtful that the handful of sightings for which there is no clear explanation point to a sophisticated, secretive military technology that Russia, China or other U.S. adversaries possess.
The intelligence report from last year found that U.S. government investigators lacked data to indicate that the craft “are part of a foreign collection program or indicative of a major technological advancement by a potential adversary.”
The government was unable to determine whether more than 140 UFOs were atmospheric events playing tricks on sensors or craft piloted by foreign adversaries, or whether the objects were extraterrestrial in origin.
Defense Department investigators don’t have any physical evidence that would suggest visitors from other worlds have come to Earth, Bray said. But he implicitly acknowledged that the United States has collected tangible objects in the course of its investigation.
“How about wreckage?” asked Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) “Have we come across any wreckage of any kind of object that has now been examined by you?”
Bray replied that U.S. investigators don’t “have any wreckage that isn’t explainable, that isn’t consistent with being of terrestrial origin.”
Krishnamoorthi asked if the military had any “sensors underwater” that might have detected submerged objects. Moultrie interjected and said the question would be addressed better in a closed, classified session that followed the public hearing.
Officials have historically been careful in their public discussions of UFOs not to reveal much about sensors and other technology that the military uses to track known adversaries. Moultrie said that the same technology that’s picking up evidence of UFOs is used for routine intelligence operations.
“There aren’t separate UAP sensors,” he said, using the government’s preferred acronym for unidentified aerial phenomena. “It’s not a separate UAP processing computer. It is not a separate UAP dissemination chain or whatever.”
Although the hearing focused primarily on the known evidence associated with the strange craft, it was hard to avoid the 500-pound alien at the center of the room — or perhaps floating above it.
Early in his remarks, Moultrie said that, like many Americans, he had long been fascinated by humans’ quest to explore space and to search for evidence of life beyond our planet.
But the Pentagon’s assessments, he said, were driven by data and evidence, and would not speculate on the origins or nature of objects that couldn’t be positively identified.
But nodding to the obvious fascination with alien beings, Moultrie said that he was a longtime science fiction fan and had attended conventions, though he didn’t “necessarily dress up.”
“Got to break the ice somehow,” Moultrie said to nervous laughter in the hearing room.