WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST) - A recent uptick in sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFO) - or as the military calls them, "unexplained aerial phenomena" - prompted the United States Navy to draft formal procedures for pilots to document encounters, a corrective measure that former officials say is long overdue.
"Since 2014, these intrusions have been happening on a regular basis," Mr Joseph Gradisher, spokesman for the deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare, told The Washington Post on Wednesday (April 24).
Recently, unidentified aircraft entered military-designated airspace as often as multiple times per month.
"We want to get to the bottom of this. We need to determine who's doing it, where it's coming from and what their intent is. We need to try to find ways to prevent it from happening again."
Citing safety and security concerns, Mr Gradisher vowed to "investigate each and every report".
Mr Luis Elizondo, a former senior intelligence officer, told The Post that the new Navy guidelines formalised the reporting process, facilitating data-driven analysis while removing the stigma from talking about UFOs, calling it "the single greatest decision the Navy has made in decades".
Mr Chris Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for intelligence and a staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was less laudatory.
"I don't believe in safety through ignorance," he said, scolding the intelligence community for its lack of "curiosity and courage" and "failure to react" to a strong pattern of sightings.
In some cases, pilots - many of whom are engineers and academy graduates - say they observed small spherical objects flying in formation. Others say they have seen white, Tic-Tac-shaped vehicles. Aside from drones, all engines rely on burning fuel to generate power, but these vehicles all had no air intake, no wind and no exhaust.
"It's very mysterious, and they still seem to exceed our aircraft in speed," he said, calling it a "truly radical technology".
According to Mr Mellon, awestruck and baffled pilots, concerned that reporting unidentified flying aircraft would adversely affect their careers, tended not to speak up. And when they did, he said there was little interest in investigating their reports.
"Imagine you see highly advanced vehicles, they appear on radar systems, they look bizarre, no one knows where they're from. This happens on a recurring basis, and no one does anything," said Mr Mellon, who now works with UFODATA, a private organisation.
Because agencies do not share this type of information, it is difficult to know the full extent of activity. Still, he estimated that dozens of incidents were witnessed by naval officers in a single year, enough to force the service to address the issue.
"Pilots are upset, and they're trying to help wake up a slumbering system," he told The Post.
Lawmakers' growing curiosity and concern also appeared to coax action out of the Navy.
In 2017, the Pentagon first confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Programme, a government operation launched in 2007 to collect and analyse "anomalous aerospace threats".
As The Post's Joby Warrick reported, the investigation ranged from "advanced aircraft fielded by traditional US adversaries to commercial drones to possible alien encounters". According to former Pentagon officials and documents previously seen by The Post, programme funding, which totalled at least US$22 million (S$30 million), was suspended in 2012.
Mr Gradisher, the Navy spokesman, said that "in response to requests for information from congressional members and staff, officials have provided a series of briefings by senior Naval Intelligence officials as well as aviators who reported hazards to aviation safety".
Mr Elizondo, who also ran AATIP, said the newly drafted guidelines were a culmination of many things. Most notably: that the Navy had enough credible evidence - including eyewitness accounts and corroborating radar information - to "know this is occurring".
"If I came to you and said, 'There are these things that can fly over our country with impunity, defying the laws of physics, and within moments could deploy a nuclear device at will' - that would be a matter of national security."
With the number of US military people in the Air Force and Navy who described the same observations, the noise level could not be ignored.
"This type of activity is very alarming," Mr Elizondo said, "and people are recognising there are things in our aerospace that lie beyond our understanding."