As a former U.S. Navy F/A-18 fighter pilot who witnessed unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP) on a regular basis, let me be clear. The U.S. government, former presidents, members of Congress of both political parties and directors of national intelligence are trying to tell the American public the same uncomfortable truth I shared: Objects demonstrating extreme capabilities routinely fly over our military facilities and training ranges. We don’t know what they are, and we are unable to mitigate their presence.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) last week published its second ever report on UAP activity. While the unclassified version is brief, its findings are sobering. Over the past year, the government has collected hundreds of new reports of enigmatic objects from military pilots and sensor systems that cannot be identified and “represent a hazard to flight safety.” The report also preserves last year’s review of the 26-year reporting period that some UAP may represent advanced technology, noting “unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.

Mysteriously, no UAP reports have been confirmed to be foreign so far. However, just this past week, a Chinese surveillance balloon shut down air traffic across the United States. How are we supposed to make sense of hundreds of reports of UAP that violate restricted airspace uncontested and interfere with both civilian and military pilots?  

Here is the hard truth. We don’t know. UAP are a national security problem, and we urgently need more data. 

Why don’t we have more data? Stigma. I know the fear of stigma is a major problem because I was the first active-duty fighter pilot to come forward publicly about regular sightings of UAP, and it was not easy. There has been little support or incentive for aircrew to speak publicly on this topic. There was no upside to reporting hard-to-explain sightings within the chain of command, let alone doing so publicly. For pilots to feel comfortable, it will require a culture shift inside organizations and in society at large.

I have seen for myself on radar and talked with the pilots who have experienced near misses with mysterious objects off the Eastern Seaboard that have triggered unsafe evasive actions and mandatory safety reports. There were 50 or 60 people who flew with me in 2014-2015 and could tell you they saw UAP every day. Yet only one other pilot has confirmed this publicly. I spoke out publicly in 2019, at great risk personally and professionally, because nothing was being done.

The ODNI report itself notes that concentrated efforts to reduce stigma have been a major reason for the increase in reports this year. To get the data and analyze it scientifically, we must uproot the lingering cultural stigma of tin foil hats and “UFOs” from the 1950s that stops pilots from reporting the phenomena and scientists from studying it.

Fortunately, Congress is taking unprecedented action to demand answers and change the culture around UAP. Amid fractured and polarized politics in Washington, UAP stands out as one of the only issues that earns bipartisan support. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) summarizes the sentiment in Congress well: “There are so many of us now on the intel committee and armed services that we’re going to stand by the service members who documented this stuff. They have video. They have radar. They have heat sensors. They have everything.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) frames it simply: “We are making important progress in our ongoing efforts to understand these activities and what threat they may pose to America’s national security…However, more needs to be done across the Defense Department and Intelligence Community. …I am committed to ensuring we get to the truth for the American people.”

Last May, the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation Subcommittee held the first UAP hearing in over 50 years. Intelligence officials testified that there were more than 400 reports of UAP, often tracked simultaneously by trained observers and multiple sensor systems, demonstrating technology that our military does not understand. Congress was briefed that incidents exist where there is sufficient data from pilots and sensors, but the case defies conventional explanation. The hearing marked a pivotal step forward to bring the topic of UAP out of the shadows and give it the urgent attention it deserves as a matter of national security. 

The Intelligence and Armed Services committees then went even farther, taking unprecedented bipartisan action to include provisions regarding UAP in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In December, President Biden signed those provisions into law. 

As a result, the 2023 NDAA requires an audit of all government involvement in UAP since 1945, (which coincides with the Trinity incident). Perhaps most significantly, the government created a secure whistleblower program for federal and private sector employees and contractors to come forward with any related information.

We are at an inflection point. Congress is exercising its oversight of a national security and air safety issue that was going under reported, ignored and even suppressed due to the stigma of UFOs. I am glad to see that Congress is taking this seriously, but there is much more work to do. It does not matter whether these are incidents of Chinese drones or something we don’t yet understand — UAP deserves our attention as a matter of aerospace safety and national security.

In 2023, we need to keep up the momentum to end the stigma and get the data. We should encourage pilots and other witnesses to come forward and keep the pressure on Congress to prioritize UAP as a matter of national security. Only one thing is clear about UAP: The fog of secrecy serves no one.

Ryan Graves is chair of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) UAP Integration & Outreach Committee (UAPIOC).

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