Congress’s Big Hearing On UFOs Was Remarkably Down To Earth
The first congressional hearing on UFOs in 50 years was all about drones and foreign actors, not extraterrestrial visitation.
The House of Representatives' Intelligence, Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation Subcommittee held a hearing today to discuss the Department of Defense’s efforts regarding “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” or UAPs, more commonly referred to as UFOs. In opening statements, officials used short video clips to illustrate the high level of ambiguity involved in many cases. While officials stated that there is no evidence for extraterrestrial visitation, they believe some cases are explained by drones, including one very high-profile case we have covered at length.
The hearing included testimony from two Defense officials, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security Ronald S. Moultrie and Scott W. Bray, the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence. According to subcommittee chairman, Congressman André Carson, an Indiana Democrat, the hearings were held to shed light on the potential national security implications of UAP, and to update Congress on the status of a newly formed group called Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, or AOIMSG.
The new group is designed to address provisions of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that obligate the Department of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to provide Congress with periodic reports about UAPs. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, was a prominent advocate for the provisions last year. She explained the rationale for the new requirements in an interview with Politico, stating “You're talking about drone technology, you're talking about balloon technology, you're talking about other aerial phenomena, and then you're talking about the unknown. Regardless of where you fall on the question of the unknown, you have to answer the rest of the questions. That’s why this is urgent. That’s why having no oversight or accountability up until now to me is unacceptable.”
At today's hearing, Indiana's Representative Carson emphasized a particular need for the Department of Defense to improve its culture surrounding the UAP issue, stating “you have to convince the audience today, and most especially our military and civilian aviators, that the culture has changed…that those who report UAPs be treated as witnesses, not as kooks.” The ranking member on the committee, Representative Rick Crawford, an Arkansas Republican, downplayed “hype and speculation” surrounding the topic and stated he was more interested in exploring the activities of “potential adversaries such as China and Russia,” and avoiding potential intelligence failures in terms of “technical surprise.” Both Carson and Crawford spoke to the need for improved transparency on the topic.
In his opening testimony, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security Moultrie explained that UAP are defined as objects that cannot be immediately identified. While acknowledging that military aviators do sometimes encounter unknown objects, he further explained that the Department of Defense believes that with appropriate reporting structures and intelligence collection efforts, it can ultimately reduce the number of unknowns.
Reflecting the categorization system introduced in a June 2021 report about UAP, Moultrie stated that the DOD would investigate potential adversaries, U.S. government and commercial platforms, and other natural phenomena. Addressing the issue of cultural stigma, the Undersecretary stated that UAP reporting would be a “mission imperative,” in support of a “methodical, logical, standardized” effort. Citing the sensitivity of sources and methods, He spoke of a need to strike a “delicate balance” in being transparent while protecting sensitive capabilities.
Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Bray’s testimony addressed the more technical dimensions of the UAP issue. He explained that there have been an increasing number of “unauthorized and or unidentified aircraft or objects” in military training ranges and other designated airspace since the early 2000s. The Deputy Director stated that “reports of sightings are frequent and continuing,” and this increase in reporting is due to decreased stigma in reporting incidents, as well as the proliferation of drone technology and increasing sensitivity of sensor systems.
The War Zone has previously reported on an unusual pattern of drone and balloon sightings near military training ranges matching Bray’s description. Nearly two dozen reports submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) detailed hazardous or unauthorized objects that interfered with military activities. In one incident, a quadcopter drone came within 15 feet of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter operating at 8,000 feet. In a separate 2018 incident, an F-35 pilot reported a near mid-air collision with two small drones, leading to the cancellation of planned training. You can view our interactive database of the FAA’s drone incident reports here.
Bray went on to explain how these objects have posed serious safety of flight concerns as well as potential counterintelligence problems. Given that military aviators “train as they would fight,” he stated that any incursion into a training range has the potential to generate significant intelligence value for foreign adversaries, something The War Zone has pointed out repeatedly and in great detail
While anecdotal accounts of incidents have increased in recent years, there are often few concrete details available due to reporting lapses. Bray acknowledged these difficulties, saying that the Department of Defense has been working to transition from an “anecdotal or narrative-based approach” to a “rigorous science and technology/engineering focused study.” According to him, naval aviators now have concrete UAP reporting procedures available to them “at their kneeboard in their cockpit.”
In order to illustrate some of the challenges associated with studying UAP, Bray played an approximately eight-second video clip of a small spherical object passing close to the cockpit of an aircraft. Within the brief clip, the object is only visible in a few frames – an issue that caused a short delay later in the hearing when an aide struggled to pause the video on an appropriate frame to show the object. Scanty data was a recurring theme of the hearing. The Navy intelligence official explained that such limited data “hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions.”
While the depth of information on individual cases continues to appear to be shallow, the overall number of cases is expanding. Bray explained that since the publication of the June 2021 UAP report, the Department of Defense database of UAP incidents has grown to 400 cases. In later remarks, he clarified that many of these additional incidents were historical in nature and added retroactively.
In his opening statement, Bray went on to say that some UAP cases have now been identified. He then played footage shot through night vision goggles of a triangular light in the sky, explaining that the footage was recorded after Navy vessels observed a “number of small unmanned aerial systems in the area.” According to the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, the footage was “unresolved for several years.” Years later, a separate incident occurred on a “different coast” where Navy personnel again recorded a swarm of unmanned aerial systems and recorded them with night vision scopes, creating a nearly identical image to the earlier West Coast events. He stated “we’re now reasonably confident that these triangles correlate to unmanned aerial systems in the area. The triangular appearance is a result of light passing through the night vision goggles and then being recorded by an SLR camera.” In later testimony, he added that the now-disestablished Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), which was replaced by the AOIMSG, was aware of studies that replicated the conditions with a drone.
The incident in question has been closely reported by The War Zone. In March of 2021, we published a summary of a strange series of drone incursions off of Southern California in 2019. Utilizing ship location metadata and Freedom of Information Act requests, we were able to document how several Navy vessels were pursued by multiple drones intermittently over the course of several weeks. Subsequent reporting further clarified that the service deployed a number of then-experimental counter unmanned aerial systems in response. Most recently, Navy documents stated that the objects were part of a “UAS Swarm.”
The 2019 incident has also attracted intense interest from the UFO community in the last year. Leaked video footage of the incidents drew intense public interest, with widespread speculation that the “flying pyramids” represented highly advanced technology. Deputy Director Bray’s testimony today confirmed that the objects were indeed a drone swarm, and that their triangular appearance is an artifact of the night vision scope system used in the recording.
The issue of advanced or extraterrestrial technology was a persistent touchpoint in the hearing. Asked about 18 cases of unusual objects in the June 2021 UAP report, Bray explained that sensor anomalies or “signature management” could explain why some objects did not have any readily apparent means of propulsion.
In an exchange with Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, Bray was pushed to clarify the nature of the ambiguity. Pressed on vague language that could unduly point toward speculations about extraterrestrials, the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence offered, “we have no material, we have detected no emanations with the UAP Task Force that would suggest it is anything nonterrestrial in origin.”
Asked for an example of an object that defied easy explanation, Bray mentioned the now famous 2004 USS Nimitz encounter. He stated that there is data on the incident that remains unresolved. The Navy intelligence official said, “I can’t point to something that definitively was not man-made, but I can point to a number of examples which remain unresolved.”
On the question of safety, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, asked if any collisions with UAP have occurred. Bray stated that while there have been no collisions, there have been 11 near midair collisions. The War Zone has exclusively covered a number of incidents that involved serious safety hazards, including near misses with unidentified objects and Navy aircraft. The bulk of these incidents occurred in airspace off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina known as the W-72 warning area. Navy safety reports described a "near mid-air collision with [a] balloon-like object." The Navy’s slow response to these incidents led to a leader in the F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 writing "I feel it may only be a matter of time before one of our F/A-18 aircraft has a mid-air collision with an unidentified UAS [unmanned aerial system].”
Representative Mike Gallagher, A Wisconsin Republican, pursued several questions regarding the Department of Defense’s past engagement with the UFO topic. Asked if the DOD had any UFO efforts between the close of the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book in 1969 and the public revealing of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP) in 2017, Undersecretary Moultrie stated that he was unaware of any official programs in that time period.
Representative Gallagher also asked about stories involving UFOs interfering with nuclear weapons at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Both Bray and Moultrie explained that they were unfamiliar with the details of these stories, but that they would try to examine the matter. In an exchange with Gallagher, Moultrie implied it is not practical for the Department of Defense to pursue many UFO stories and anecdotes.
The subject of the public’s engagement with UFO stories was taken up by Congressman Darin LaHood, an Illinois Republican, in a number of questions related to misinformation. Citing “amateur interest groups” involved in the UAP field, LaHood asked if there are any consequences for people propagating misinformation. Undersecretary Moultrie acknowledged these issues, stating “one of the concerns we have is that there are a lot of individuals and groups that are putting information out there that could be considered somewhat self-serving.” He went on to explain that spurious claims “contribute to the undermining of the confidence that the Congress and the American people have that we are trying to get to the root cause of what’s happening here.” He concluded by stating that “it is hurtful, but hopefully if we get more information out there we will start to lessen the impact of those reports.”
Throughout the hearing, both officials repeatedly spoke of their desire to maximize the amount of information available to the public. Only a few topics prompted requests to discuss matters in a closed, classified session later in the afternoon. Asked by Representative Krishnamoorthi if UAP encounters had prompted any defense technology development in terms of weapons or sensors, Mr. Moultrie asked to defer the question to a closed setting. Another question by Representative Krishnamoorthi asked if the Department of Defense had any sensors under the water to detect UAP, which was also deferred. In other remarks, Bray and Moultrie were reluctant to discuss details about how other countries have engaged with the UAP issue, though they did acknowledge that China has established its own UAP effort.
At the close of the hearing, Representative Carson sought to further clarify if the DoD's UAP analysis group has sufficient access to determine if UAP could be developmental prototypes and that the “U.S. government isn’t chasing its own tail.” Both Bray and Moultrie stated that they were confident in the process in place. Bray explained that they were “quite confident” that misidentified US assets were not responsible for UAP sightings, but it was possible that “one or two data points leaked through.”
Taken as a whole, the House hearing was a fairly informal affair. While officials chose to remain open-minded to varied explanations, they largely emphasized that the available data limits their conclusions and that just because they cannot resolve an unknown does not necessarily make it an exotic technology. Moreso, there was no evidence or support offered that any of these objects performed in a way that is outside the realm of known capabilities, even when pressed about the possibility.
The few notes of clarity in the briefing were largely focused on the 2019 drone swarm incident. The War Zone has covered a number of these more unusual incidents, reflecting a larger thesis that adversaries could potentially exploit a cultural blindspot surrounding UFOs using drone and balloon technology. Today’s testimony confirmed that drone swarms have in fact been deployed against U.S. Navy assets in close proximity to domestic waters. Further, these drone swarms were not successfully resolved at the time they were encountered. This is a highly significant confirmation with wide-ranging implications.
Today’s hearing also demonstrates that public discussion of such encounters is largely situated in a broader cultural conversation about UFOs and aliens – not terrestrial technology and intelligence. In fact, none of the lawmakers present asked any follow-up questions about the apparent fact that at least two highly troubling drone swarm events have occurred in the last several years.
As the Department of Defense moves forward with this topic, it remains to be seen how it will manage legitimate safety and counterintelligence concerns alongside an enduring legacy of mistrust surrounding the UFO topic. The War Zone will continue to closely follow developments in this space.
Contact the author: Adam@thewarzone.com