There's no reason to believe that mysterious aircraft sightings near U.S. naval formations recently are visitors from other planets. But whatever they are, they present what could pose a national security concern that has to be addressed.
Yet the ridicule and even career jeopardy that military pilots can face when they report unusual aerial sightings threatens that effort. So it's right that the Navy is drafting new guidelines for pilots to report encounters with unidentified objects, with an eye toward destigmatizing the issue. Unfortunately, they still want to keep those reports away from public view.
Throughout aviation history, pilots have seen things in the skies that can't be readily identified. Often, they're eventually shown to be natural phenomena, or standard aircraft, or in some cases secret military aircraft. Some are never explained.
It was the U.S. Air Force, in the 1950s, that first designated such unexplained sightings as "unidentified flying objects." The acronym UFO wasn't initially meant to suggest anything more than what it says: objects that can't be identified. But popular culture soon redefined it as extraterrestrial visitation, giving us generations of sci-fi fun, box-office gold and occasional controversy.
Still, despite decades of searching by obsessed UFO hunters and serious scientists alike, there's been no confirmed evidence of alien visitations to Earth (or anywhere else). The military has already stopped using the UFO designation it invented — it now calls them UAPs, for "unexplained aerial phenomena" — but that hasn't erased the professional stigma that pilots can face for reporting one.
That's a problem, especially since the Navy recently confirmed "unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft entering various military-controlled ranges and designated air space in recent years." Politico reported the sightings include unfamiliar, apparently advanced aircraft intruding on Navy strike groups.
As one former Pentagon official told Politico, there are real dangers to a pilot downplaying such sightings for fear of being called a kook: "What happens in five years if it turns out these are extremely advanced Russian aircraft?"
Yet, currently, even when military pilots do report seeing something they can't explain, those reports tend to get shunted aside because officials don't know what to do with them, or whether to even take them seriously.
In response, the Navy says it is "updating and formalizing" the process for such reports to make it clear what all involved, including the pilot, are supposed to do. The new guidelines, it says, will drive home the message that it "takes these reports very seriously."
That's good to know. The issue of whether Earth is or ever has been visited by aliens is one that still fosters interesting, sometimes intense debate. What's not debatable is that, when U.S. pilots see anything that could pose a security threat — earthly or otherwise — embarrassment should be the last thing on their minds.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH