It almost certainly isn’t aliens. And yet …

U.S. Navy awards $197 million contract to BAE Systems for USS Wasp modernization

The truth is out there. U.S. Navy photo

In recent years, videos have been making the rounds online of strange aircraft surrounding U.S. naval vessels, often in ostensibly secure waters. The unidentified craft make surprising (and sometimes outlandish) maneuvers. In some cases, they seem to emit no exhaust, display no obvious means of propulsion, and evade American pilots with apparent ease. In one 2015 incident, which the Pentagon has confirmed, fighter pilots scrambled from the USS Theodore Roosevelt strike group express bafflement as a fleet of mysterious objects seems to surround them.

No one can quite say what they are. In military-speak, they’re known as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAPs (the fancy new term for UFOs). Some have speculated that they’re drones, optical illusions, software glitches, weather events or other prosaic occurrences. To other, more-vocal constituencies, they are undoubtedly of otherworldly origin.

Whatever they are, the government is taking them seriously. In December, Congress directed the intelligence community to submit a comprehensive report on the incidents (due in June). This month, the Pentagon’s inspector general announced a probe “to determine the extent to which the DoD has taken actions regarding Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” Several members of Congress have vowed to get to the bottom of things.

They should indeed. A number of reports – including an investigation by the automotive news website The Drive, based on Freedom of Information Act requests – suggest that UAPs are interacting with U.S. ships with alarming frequency. Such incidents are potential national security threats, yet pilots seem reluctant to discuss them for fear of being stigmatized. As a report from the Senate intelligence committee warned last year, there’s also no standardized way to report or analyze them. The committee called for the creation of an interagency process, involving representatives from across the military and intelligence agencies.

Such an approach – formal, bureaucratic, extraordinarily dull – is precisely what’s needed. It should lend sobriety and legitimacy to any findings, while ensuring that various parts of the government are sharing information. If necessary, it should also allow for a coordinated response. The question is how transparent it should be. Obviously, if the aircraft in question are part of a classified U.S. military project, then secrecy is imperative. Likewise, if they belong to an adversary, security issues arise. But being cautious is very different from being overtly misleading – and, unfortunately, there’s precedent for the latter approach.

Starting in the 1950s, as UFO sightings began proliferating across the U.S., both the Air Force and the CIA tried to conceal their interest in the matter. They did so in part because they feared that the Soviets were trying to sow hysteria and wanted to calm the public, but they also knew that many of the sightings were of top-secret U.S. spy planes. In the end, such deceptions were counterproductive. Nobody believed the denials, the government lost credibility, and the hysteria only grew. An internal CIA review in 1997 found that the agency’s duplicity only added “to a growing sense of public distrust.”

That skepticism is one reason why, in the decades since, garden-variety military incidents and mishaps have repeatedly been transformed into galactic conspiracies believed by a shockingly high percentage of Americans. With trust in the U.S. government once again at a low ebb, misleading the public with regard to UAPs would be a serious mistake.

And what if, this time, it really is aliens? Well, that would also be worthy of sober investigation. It could even justify some new interagency processes.

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