FAA Data Shows Strange Pattern Of Military Encounters With Unidentified Aircraft

It's not just what is happening, it's where it's happening, with pronounced concentrations of incidents off the east coast and in southern Arizona.

FAA Drone Reports
Author's Illustration/FAA/USN

The Federal Aviation Administration has seen a dramatic increase in drone-related incidents, recording approximately 10,000 reports in the last five years. The War Zone has identified a substantial number of military encounters with unidentified aircraft among those reports, often in sensitive airspace. While some of the incidents represent typical hazards associated with commercial drones, others are indicative of advanced capabilities, including the ability to fly at relatively high altitudes and to potentially operate in coordinated groups. More so, it's not just what’s happening, it is where it is happening that is so intriguing.

The incidents appear to have predominantly impacted the U.S. Navy and Air Force, with a pronounced geographic nexus off the coast of the southeastern United States, as well as another in the southwestern United States. Many of the incidents we identified occurred far out over the ocean in military training ranges that have become known for ongoing sightings of unusual aircraft. Notably, there were far fewer similar incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in other areas that also host a great deal of military activity, such as off the West Coast or around Florida. It is unclear if this is because fewer incidents happen in those locations or if it is because reporting practices are inconsistent, or a mixture of both.

Authors' illustraton

Among the reports, we found almost two dozen that involved troubling characteristics. For example, in 2018, an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot reported a near mid-air collision with two small drones operating between 16,000 and 22,000 feet. The incident led to the cancellation of planned activities. Another report in 2017 cited as many as eight unidentified aircraft operating in sensitive airspace off the East Coast. In a 2020 incident, a quadcopter flew within 15 feet of an F-35 operating at 8,000 feet.

While the reports describe a pattern of incursions and hazards that have persisted over years, it appears that there is little official coordination between government stakeholders on the issue. Our many Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the FAA, Air Force, and Navy about the incidents surfaced little in terms of documentation beyond the minimal details available in the public reports. Asked for comment, spokespeople for the Navy's Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes (FACSFAC VACAPES) and the Department of Defense's Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force offered no clarification about the apparent lack of documentation or procedures surrounding incidents like these. Details regarding the Navy's claim that it has revamped the process for reporting incursions into military training areas and other potentially hazardous encounters with unidentified aircraft remain unclear.

The FAA Reports In Context

The War Zone has created a unified dataset based on disparate FAA quarterly records of drone incidents. Based on our analysis of key terms in these reports, at least fifty incidents involved military aircraft or controlled airspace. Approximately half of those involved incidents that occurred at unusual altitudes for commercial drones, involved serious safety hazards to military aircraft, or took place in designated military operating areas.

Tellingly, the strangest reports tend to be clustered in one of two areas: the waters off the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to Delaware, and in the broad vicinity of southern Arizona. Both areas are home to a bevy of sensitive military training ranges and special-use airspace. Several of the coastal incidents involved drones operating far from shore, as many as 80 to 100 miles off the coast.

The eastern seaboard was previously the focus of New York Times reporting on a series of sightings of unidentified objects by military aviators. The objects were described by fighter pilot Ryan Graves as having the ability to loiter for long periods and fly at high altitudes. The New York Times reported that the issue became so serious that formal aviation safety reports were filed. More recently, 60 Minutes examined the broader topic of unidentified aerial phenomena and prominently quoted Graves, saying that pilots observed unusual aircraft “every day for at least a couple [of] years.”

In May 2020, The War Zone obtained the eight hazard reports that were implied to have existed by the New York Times via a Freedom of Information Act request last year. According to those reports, seven of the incidents involved F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets, with most of the events occurring between 2013 and 2014 in an area off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina known as the W-72 warning area. One separate incident occurred in 2019 involving an EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jet, flying in an area off the coast of Maryland known as the W-386 warning area.

VFRmap.com

The reports detail a series of safety issues concerning small unidentified objects. In an April 23, 2014 report the commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11) wrote "although this report is primarily submitted for tracking purposes, it is only a matter of time before this results in a midair [collision] in W-72." Another report filed just days later described a “near mid-air collision with a balloon like object.”

While those reports show a concerning pattern of safety incidents, they do not describe any overt exotic capabilities, although some are quite odd. These include multi-rotor drones hovering at extreme altitudes far out to sea and a jet-powered cruise missile-like craft. 

The War Zone previously detailed a number of other oddities in the reporting of these cases — for instance, nearly half of incidents were described from just one squadron, VFA-11. Considering the many other squadrons based in the same vicinity, it stands to reason that only certain units were officially reporting encounters, or that the criteria for reporting varied between units. The full scope of the incidents remains unclear. 

The eight reports available in the Navy’s Web-Enabled Safety System (WESS) Aviation Mishap and Hazard Reporting System (WAMHRS) are not the only recent military reports concerning incidents involving unidentified aircraft. The War Zone separately reported on a further 25 incidents reported in the Air Force Safety Automated System (AFAS). Those reports span from 2014 to late 2019 and involve locations across the world, including remote areas like Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. As in the Navy cases, some involved near-collision with unidentified aircraft. In one notable instance an “unidentified remotely piloted aircraft” came within 15 feet of C-17A Globemaster III cargo aircraft. 

A Growing Pattern Of Incidents

With this historical context in mind, the FAA records compiled by The War Zone add to a picture of a steady stream of incidents occurring off the eastern seaboard, including up to October of 2020. It bears noting that FAA records of drone incidents past December 2020 have not yet been made public.

Authors' illustration

Records of the incidents, while brief, paint a sobering picture. A majority of the incidents occurred within over-water military test and training ranges. In one 2017 incident, an E-2 Hawkeye reported an unidentified and unknown aircraft flying at 16,400 feet via radar. An F/A-18 separately verified the track and reported eight other possible unidentified aircraft operating in the same vicinity. 

An earlier incident in 2016 described an F/A-18 observing four unidentified aircraft, one colored red and the others black, hovering at 11,000 feet over 100 miles from the North Carolina coast. Later in 2018, a “balloon shaped UAS with a camera” flying at 13,500 feet nearly caused a mid-air collision, forcing two F/A-18s to split their formation to avoid the object. 

One especially notable incident involved two silver, cylindrical aircraft flying in the vicinity of Washington, DC on September 17, 2017. The cylindrical objects were spotted by an F-16 flying at about 4,000 feet in a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) area, approximately two miles northwest of Joint Base Andrews. The information was relayed to Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), which provides air traffic control service to the Baltimore-Washington and the Richmond-Charlottesville areas. 

The presence of the drones was put into the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) system, which provides a continuous broadcast of essential information to nearby pilots. The incident is notable both for the unusual appearance of the aircraft, and its presence near such highly monitored and well-defended airspace.

Authors' illustration

Apart from the coastal events, an entirely separate cluster of incidents have been reported in a concentrated area in the American Southwest. The region has become known for strange unidentified aircraft incidents, and just recently, The War Zone reported on a bizarre drone chase over Tucson.

The Southwest incidents have had some of the most serious safety consequences. On January 13, 2020, in the vicinity of Glendale, Arizona, a quadcopter was described as flying within 15 feet of the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force F-35, at an altitude of 8,000 feet. The encounter prompted evasive action from the pilot. Incidents have also involved breaches of restricted airspace, as in a June 17, 2020 event near Albuquerque, New Mexico. In that incident, “electronic sensors” advised an F-35 of a drone flying at 31,500 feet in a restricted area.

Before we move on to some conclusions, you can check out all of these outlying reports for yourself below: 

The Reports in Chronological Order

Note: all FAA UAS incident reports are available from August 2015 to December 2020 here.

February 8, 2016: Goldsboro, North Carolina

1200E/USAF, F15, GSB - GSB, REPORTED A UNKN TYPE UAS FROM 13,000 FEET- FL230 WHILE OPERATING IN WARNING AREA W177A.

March 29, 2016: Virginia Beach, Virginia

256,2016-03-29 15:15:00,"PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: VIRGINIA BEACH, VA/UAS INCIDENT/1515E/USN, F18, OBSERVED A UAS OPERATING BETWEEN 12,000 FEET - FL200 HEADING E IN WARNING AREA W72. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED.  ",Virginia Beach,Virginia.

April 19, 2016: Virginia Beach, Virginia

92,2016-04-19 17:49:00,VIRGINIA BEACH,Virginia,"PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: VIRGINIA BEACH, VA/UAS INCIDENT/1724E/OCEANA NAVAL AIR STATION ADVISED USN RA F18, OBSERVED 4 UAS'S (1 RED & 3 BLACK) HOVERING AT 11,000 FEET 92 ESE OF OCEANA NAVAL AIR STATION, VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEOS NOT NOTIFIED. "

September 10, 2017: Camp Springs, Maryland

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: CAMP SPRINGS, MD/UAS INCIDENT/1233E/POTOMAC TRACON ADVISED F16 OBSERVED TWO SILVER-METALLIC UAS WHILE W BOUND AT 4,000 FEET 2 NW ADW. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEO NOTIFIED. UAS MOR Alert for ADW Number: ADW-M-2017/09/10-0001 Type: Hazardous and/or Unauthorized UAS Activity Date/Time: Sep 10, 2017 - 1706Z A/C: (F16) Summary: F16 REPORTED DURING A TFR (AOB 15,000 FEET) 2 DRONE AT 4000 MOVING WEST. THEY WERE CYLINDRICAL IN SHAPE. THE INFORMATION WAS THEN PUT ON THE ATIS. PCT, NCR AND ROC ADVISED. PG COUNTY POLICE CALLED (1804Z) AND REPORTED THAT THEY WENT OUT AND LOOKED AND FOUND NOTHING. NO FURTHER ISSUES. 

December 18, 2017: Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: KILL DEVIL HILLS, NC/UAS INCIDENT/1214E/FACSFAC VACAPES ADVISED F18 REPORTED A SILVER UAS TRAVELING E BOUND AT 70 KTS 1,000 FEET BELOW ACFT WHILE MANEUVERING AT 17,000 FEET 50 E KILL DEVIL HILLS, NC. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEOS NOT NOTIFIED. _x000D_ _x000D_

A separate incident was also reported:

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: KILL DEVIL HILLS, NC/UAS INCIDENT/1240E/FACSFAC VACAPES ADVISED E2 REPORTED AN UNKN UAS FLYING E BOUND AT 16,400 FEET VIA RADAR WHILE N BOUND AT FL210 64 ESE KILL DEVIL HILLS. F18 VERIFIED TRACK AND REPORTED 8 OTHER POSSIBLE UAS OPERATING IN THE SAME VCNTY. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEOS NOT NOTIFIED. _x000D_

February 16, 2018: Mayport, Florida

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: MAYPORT, FL/UAS INCIDENT/1710E/JACKSONVILLE TRACON ADVISED F18 REPORTED A UAS WHILE W BOUND AT 10,000 FEET OVER OCEAN 20 E MAYPORT. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED. UAS LOCATION RELATIVE TO ACFT NOT PROVIDED. DUVAL COUNTY SHERIFF NOTIFIED._x000D_ _x000D_ _x000D_ UAS MOR Alert for JAX_x000D_ Number: JAX-M-2018/02/16-0003_x000D_ Type: Hazardous and/or Unauthorized UAS Activity_x000D_ Date/Time: Feb 16, 2018 - 2010Z_x000D_ A/C: (F18)_x000D_ _x000D_ _x000D_ Summary: F18 REPORTED A UAS AT 10,000 FEET 20 MILES EAST OF NRB. COULD NOT GIVE JAX ANY MORE INFORMATION. DUVAL COUNTY SHERRIFF, DEN AND THE NAVY ADVISED. 

March 20, 2018: Louisville, Georgia

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: LOUISVILLE, GA/UAS INCIDENT/1120E/ATLANTA ARTCC ADVISED F35 REPORTED NMAC WITH 2 SMALL UAS AT 16,000 FEET, FL200 AND FL220 WHILE MANEUVERING IN THE BULLDOG MOA VCNTY OF LOUISVILLE. PILOT REPORTED UAS AND ACFT MERGED ON ACFT RADAR DISPLAY. ACFT TERMINATED OPERATIONS IN THE MOA TO AVOID FURTHER CONFLICT. EVASIVE ACTION NOT REPORTED. UNKN IF LEO WAS NOTIFIED. _x000D_ _x000D_

April 30, 2018: Snow Hill, Maryland

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: SNOW HILL, MD/UAS INCIDENT/1245E/VIRGINIA CAPES ATCT ADVISED F18 REPORTED A SHINY ROUND BLACK UAS 500 FEET ABOVE ACFT WHILE CLIMBING FROM 16,500 FEET 16 SSE SNOW HILL. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEO WAS NOT NOTIFIED. _x000D_ _x000D_

May 9, 2018: Windsor, Connecticut

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: WINDSOR LOCKS, CT/UAS INCIDENT/1037E/BRADLEY TRACON ADVISED F15 REPORTED A UAS AT 9,000 FEET 15 ESE OF BDL. EVASIVE ACTION NOT REPORTED. LEO NOTIFICATION NOT REPORTED. _x000D_ _x000D_ _x000D_ UAS MOR Alert for Y90_x000D_ Number: Y90-M-2018/05/09-0001_x000D_ Type: Hazardous and/or Unauthorized UAS Activity_x000D_ Date/Time: May 9, 2018 - 1437Z_x000D_ A/C: (2/F15)_x000D_ _x000D_ _x000D_ Summary: 2/F15 REPORTED A (UAV) AT ABOUT 15 MILES E-SE OF BDL WHEN HE WAS DESCENDING FOR AT 090 (UAV0) ABOVE HIM. NO ADDITIONAL INFORMATION WAS SOLICITED DUE TO TRAFFIC VOLUME. DESPRIPTION NOT AVAILABLE.

October 3, 2018: Currituck, North Carolina

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: CURRITUCK, NC/UAS INCIDENT/1856E/WASHINGTON ARTCC ADVISED, 2/F18 REPORTED A BALLOON SHAPED UAS WITH A CAMERA WHILE S BOUND AT 13,500 FEET 5 N CURRITUCK. THE FLIGHT SPLIT FORMATION TO AVOID UAS. CURRITUCK COUNTY SHERIFF NOTIFIED._x000D_ _x000D_ UAS MOR Alert for ZDC_x000D_ Number: ZDC-M-2018/10/03-0002_x000D_ Type: Hazardous and/or Unauthorized UAS Activity_x000D_ Date/Time: Oct 3, 2018 - 2138Z_x000D_ A/C: (2/F18)_x000D_ _x000D_ Summary: FLIGHT HAD TO TAKE EVASIVE ACTION TO MISS THE DRONE. INCIDENT REPORTED TO MILITARY AC.

July 3, 2019: Augusta, Georgia

_x000D_ UAS MOR Alert for ZTL_x000D_ Number: ZTL-M-2019/07/03-0004_x000D_ Type: Hazardous and/or Unauthorized UAS Activity_x000D_ Date/Time: Jul 3, 2019 - 1148Z_x000D_ A/C:  (4/F16)_x000D_ _x000D_ _x000D_ Summary: 4/F16 was operating in the Bulldog MOA/R3004A,B,C,E (SFC-FL270) when they flew over a object that appeared to be a drone. They only characterized it as being black in color. The flight didn't have to take evasive action in an effort to avoid. LAT/LONG 330N/8224W

January 13, 2020: Glendale, Arizona

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: GLENDALE, AZ/UAS INCIDENT/LATE REPORT - 1/13 0815M/ALBUQUERQUE ARTCC ADVISED USAF C F35, REPORTED A UAS QUADCOPTER 15 FEET AHEAD OF THE COCKPIT WHILE SW BOUND AT 8,000 FEET 37 SW GILA BEND VORTAC, AZ. EVASIVE ACTION WAS TAKEN. LEO NOTIFICATION NOT REPORTED. NO ADDITIONAL INFORMATION PROVIDED.

February 10, 2020: Cape Charles, Virginia

CORRECTION (REPORTING FACILITY) INFO FROM FAA OPS: CAPE CHARLES, VA/UAS INCIDENT/0854E/FACSFAC VACAPES ADVISED F22, LFI - LFI, REPORTED A DARK STATIONARY UAS WHILE NW BOUND AT FL210 29 NE CAPE CHARLES VORTAC. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. CITY OF NORFOLK FIRE AND RESCUE SAFETY NOTIFIED AND VIRGINIA BEACH FIRE AND RESCUE NOTIFIED.

April 17, 2020: Cherry Point, North Carolina

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: CHERRY POINT, NC/UAS INCIDENT/1020E/F15, GSB - GSB, OBSERVED A UAS WHILE MANEUVERING BETWEEN FL240-270 WHILE IN WARING AREA W-122 72 SE MCAS CHERRY POINT. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED. LEOS NOT NOTIFIED DUE TO LOCATION OF UAS. NO FURTHER INFORMATION PROVIDED.

May 14, 2020: Phoenix, Arizona

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: PHOENIX, AZ/UAS INCIDENT/1334M/PHOENIX TRACON ADVISED  F16, REPORTED A BLACK UAS BELOW FROM THE 12 O'CLOCK POSITION WHILE W BOUND AT 16,000 FEET 30 E PHX. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. PHOENIX ARPT PD NOTIFIED.

June 17, 2020: Albuquerque, New Mexico

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: ALBUQUERQUE, NM/UAS INCIDENT/1616M/ALBUQUERQUE ARTCC ADVISED F35, OBSERVED UAS VIA ELECTRONIC SENSOR AT FL315 WHILE NBOUND IN RESTRICTED AREA 2304/2305 18 S GILA BEND VORTAC . NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEO NOT REPORTED.

August 11, 2020: China Lake, California

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: CHINA LAKE, CA/UAS INCIDENT/1236P/JOSHUA CONTROL FACILITY ADVISED F16, REPORTED A UAS FROM THE 2 O'CLOCK POSITION WHILE E BOUND AT 14,000 FEET 48 NE NID. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED. LAW ENFORCEMENT NOTIFICATION NOT REPORTED.

October 2, 2020: Virginia Beach, Virginia

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: VIRGINIA BEACH, VA/UAS INCIDENT/1350E/OCEANA NAS APCH ADVISED F18, REPORTED UAS WHILE SE BOUND AT 11,000 FEET 10 E OCEANA NAVAL AIR STATION. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED. LEO NOTIFICATION NOT REPORTED.

October 27, 2020: Gila Bend, Arizona

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: GILA BEND, AZ/UAS INCIDENT/1302M/ALBUQUERQUE ARTCC ADVISED F35, REPORTED A UAS WHILE N BOUND AT FL200 50 S GILA BEND. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. PIMA COUNTY SHERIFF NOTIFIED.

November 20, 2020: Glendale, Arizona

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: GLENDALE, AZ/UAS INCIDENT/1315M/ALBUQUERQUE ARTCC ADVISED F16, REPORTED A BLACK UAS WHILE N BOUND AT 17,500 FEET WHILE OPERATING WITHIN THE GLADDEN MILITARY OPERATING AREA. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEO NOTIFICATION NOT REPORTED. NO OTHER INFORMATION GIVEN.

December 14, 2020: Glendale, Arizona

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: GLENDALE, AZ/UAS INCIDENT/1604M/ALBUQUERQUE ARTCC ADVISED F35, LUF - LUF, REPORTED 4 SMALL UAS WHILE BETWEEN 16,800-19,500 FEET 10 NW GLENDALE. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEO NOT NOTIFIED DUE TO LATE REPORTING.

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: GLENDALE, AZ/UAS INCIDENT/1655M/ALBUQUERQUE ARTCC ADVISED F35, REPORTED A UAS WHILE AT 15,700 FEET 13 SE GLENDALE. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. LEO NOT NOTIFIED DUE TO LATE REPORTING.

A Potential Documentation Gap

The War Zone has sought specific documentation on several of the events. Using the details available in FAA reports, we filed targeted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Air Force's 4th Fighter Wing about certain incidents referenced above, as well as a more general request regarding similar incidents. The 4th Fighter Wing responded to our requests with a “no records” reply. Notably, FOIA responses will typically identify if classified records exist, but cannot be released. A “no records” reply indicates that the 4th Fighter Wing could not locate records related to the incident. A more far-ranging FOIA request to the Air Force Safety Center is pending at the time of writing, and we continue to file requests with other units that may have been involved in these incidents.

In the past, The War Zone also inquired with Air Combat Command (ACC) about the Air Force’s role, or lack thereof, in dealing with this ongoing national security issue. One of the key missions of the Air Force is to defend national airspace – this is not the Navy's mission as some may think. Our initial attempt to seek clarification from ACC was ultimately referred to a Pentagon public affairs officer who oversees all public communication regarding unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). After that referral, The War Zone received no substantive reply to our questions. Subsequent FOIA disclosures to John Greenewald at the TheBlackVault.com showed that behind the scenes, Air Force public affairs officials had in fact compiled some answers to The War Zone's questions. Those answers were evidently held by the Pentagon's spokesperson. Lack of transparency continues to make it entirely unclear what steps, if any, the Air Force is currently taking with respect to this issue.

The Naval Air Force Atlantic (AIRLANT), the Navy's main aviation command on the East Coast, also denied having records on any of the incidents. The War Zone filed a broad request that included incidents in the W-72 and W-122 warning areas, as well as other specific incidents mentioned in the FAA data. AIRLANT replied that they “found no responsive documents'' on any of the incidents. A further request of the processing notes of our inquiry produced an internal conversation within that clarified “as far as these 3 separate FOIAs, we have no information to provide. There are no current procedures in place to gather and maintain those records on file.” 

A separate communication clarified “there are no procedures/requirements in place to maintain that data for more than 1 year unless an incident resulting in a hazrep [hazard report] was involved.” The same communication described current procedures: "when a 'range fowler' [sic] is reported, ATC [air traffic control] makes a standard broadcast to advise SUA [special use airspace] participants. The information is gathered and reported through the DEN (Domestic Events Network). Those reports are filed with daily traffic count and reports and purged yearly." The Domestic Events Network is a communications system established by the FAA to share information about potential airspace threats between a wide range of partner agencies.

The FAA also replied to FOIA requests, but notified us that they have no additional records because the events occurred outside of a 45-day record retention period. The War Zone has reached out to the FAA's Office of Communications for comment. We were told, “The FAA implements restrictions prohibiting drone flights over certain national-security-sensitive locations at the request of the U.S. military and other federal agencies.” The FAA otherwise declined to comment on the specific incidents or existing procedures for coordinating with military authorities.

The Department of Defense spokesperson for the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF) acknowledged an inquiry about the incidents, but has not provided substantive comment at the time of writing. The remit of the UAPTF is to examine reports of “incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace.” It remains unclear if the UAPTF has actively examined any of the nearly two dozen cases we’ve identified, or what their response has been to date.

While these responses do not preclude the possibility that documents and records exist elsewhere, they do suggest that the stakeholders closest to these issues do not maintain historical records on unusual incidents. We continue to seek clarification and to identify if documentation exists in other channels, or if these incidents are simply not rigorously collated and analyzed.

A Concerning Pattern Continues To Grow

In recent years, it has become clear that there is a pattern of unidentified aircraft operating in sensitive airspace, often used by the military, and acting in unsafe ways. The most significant recent example was an incident involving multiple aircraft apparently harassing United States Navy vessels off the coast of Southern California over a period of several days. In response to that reporting, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday confirmed that the aircraft are still unidentified, and that there have been other incidents involving other service branches and even other militaries.

FAA records documented here substantiate this reality, and show a continued pattern of training range incursions that are documented to have spanned years. While some incidents may be due to relatively harmless enthusiasts operating drones, others are much harder to explain. The repeated operation of aircraft and balloons far out over the ocean, often in very particular military warning areas, indicates a potentially much more serious intent.

The response of the Department of Defense to this situation remains opaque. Our findings here suggest a potential documentation gap, where significant incidents are sometimes reported to the FAA, but not otherwise rigorously recorded or internalized by the Department of Defense.

If there are other channels of investigation, for example through the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force or another intelligence component, the Department of Defense is currently unwilling or unable to comment on them.

Given the seriousness of the issue and the often confusing governmental response, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DOD OIG) has begun an evaluation of the Pentagon’s broad handling of the matter. The announcement of the evaluation came in the context of an already eagerly expected Senate report on unidentified aerial phenomena.

Currently, media interest and speculation about the possible identity of these aircraft is at a fever pitch. Much of the discussion has centered around the prospect of extraterrestrial visitors. The discussion has largely been spearheaded by figures like former Pentagon official Luis Elizondo, who publicly alleges that the Department of Defense has covered up information on the UFO topic. Elizondo recently lodged a complaint with DOD OIG, claiming that he has been the victim of reprisal since his resignation.

While some cases remain genuinely odd, to date the vast majority are readily explainable within existing conventional technology. Tyler Rogoway recently argued in a War Zone editorial that the Pentagon may be overlooking the possibility that foreign competitors play a role in at least some of these incidents. Advances in relatively simple unmanned technologies make it increasingly possible for foreign military forces and intelligence services to deploy electronic intelligence gathering platforms in a very low-risk, high reward manner that could explain many sightings. There is a well-established historical precedent for this, as well. As reported above, there is ample evidence of repeated occurrences of sightings in or near military training ranges that would be very high-value targets for electronic reconnaissance.

Whatever the ultimate identities of these aircraft turn out to be, it is clear that they represent an ongoing national security concern. These are not isolated incidents but routine occurrences and we know the majority of which go unreported. Despite the number of them, it remains difficult to publicly document the response of government stakeholders, raising significant concerns that the issue is not being adequately addressed even after so much public attention and so many promises from the Pentagon. 

Contact the authors: Adam@thewarzone.com and Marc@thewarzone.com