Nick Pope The UK MoD’s UFO project ran from 1953 to 2009 CHD 5-02
Citizen Hearing on Disclosure “Other Countries” Panel Nick Pope Opening Statement
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) is an organization broadly analogous to the US Department of Defense and has a dual role as a policy-making Department of State and as the UK’s highest-level military headquarters.
The MoD’s UFO project ran from 1953 to 2009 and in that time over 12,000 UFO sightings were logged and investigated. MoD’s role here was to research and investigate the UFO phenomenon to determine whether there was evidence of any potential threat to the defense of the United Kingdom, or anything of more general defense interest. The UK’s interest in UFOs had its roots in concerns that some objects might be foreign – mainly Soviet – military aircraft on reconnaissance missions, or on missions to test the capabilities and effectiveness of our air defense network, both in terms of military radar and air defense fighters. The work that we did was very similar to the work done by the US Government’s UFO program, which was embedded in the United States Air Force under a number of different project names, the best-known of which was BLUE BOOK. The UK’s program had no formal project name.
Our conclusions were that most UFO sightings could be explained as misidentifications of known objects or phenomena, as hoaxes, or as delusions of some sort – psychological or psychiatric. However, around 5% appeared to defy conventional explanation and were of considerable interest. We took no position on the nature of these sightings and remained open-minded as to the possibilities. Accordingly, while we were aware of no evidence that would support the theory that any UFO sightings were attributable to extraterrestrial life, we did not entirely rule out the possibility. It was regarded as a “low probability/high consequence” scenario, which is why, from time to time, the possibility was at least considered in internal MoD discussions. Despite the wider, societal implications, MoD’s interest was narrowly focused on technology acquisition. Scientific and technical intelligence experts in MoD’s Defense Intelligence Staff were not averse to speculating about exotic energy sources, propulsion systems and aerodynamics, in relation to UFOs. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of this was a Defense Intelligence Staff document from 1995, which read, in part:
“If the sightings are of devices not of the Earth then their purpose needs to be established as a matter of priority. There has been no apparent hostile intent and other possibilities are: 1) military reconnaissance; 2) scientific; 3) tourism.”
The intent was practical, as the document went on to set out:
“We could use this technology, if it exists.”
Though we accepted UFO reports from everyone (and indeed the vast majority of sightings came to us from the public), the sightings that were of most interest were those where the witnesses were police officers, pilots, or military personnel. We were also particularly interested in sightings where there was some corroborative evidence, e.g. in terms of radar data, or a photograph or film that specialist imagery analysis staff could evaluate.
Of particular concern to us were a number of incidents where there were near- misses between UFOs and commercial aircraft. There are several such cases in the MoD UFO files and in the files of the Civil Aviation Authority – a UK Government agency broadly equivalent to the US Federal Aviation Administration.
The UK’s best-known and most compelling UFO incident is a series of sightings that occurred in December 1980 and are collectively known as either the Rendlesham Forest incident or the Bentwaters incident. These sightings are the subject of a separate panel on which I am sitting.
In the late Nineties the MoD’s Defense Intelligence Staff commissioned a review of many of the UFO sightings that the MoD had investigated over the years. This intelligence analysis was known as Project Condign (a randomly generated codeword) and attempted some trend analysis of the reports received, as opposed to reinvestigation of individual cases. The final report was published in 2000 and ran to over 400 pages. The title was “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defense Region” – the MoD often uses the phrase UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon) in internal correspondence, so as to avoid the unfortunate, pop-culture baggage that comes with the term “UFO”. At the time, Project Condign’s final report was classified Secret UK Eyes Only. Its controversial conclusion was that some UFO sightings might be attributable to exotic atmospheric plasmas and that there might be novel military applications (e.g. in terms of directed energy weapons) that might merit further study. Again, the air safety implications of the phenomenon were judged to be important. One recommendation read as follows:
“No attempt should be made to out-maneuver a UAP during interception”.
Another recommendation stated:
“At higher altitudes, although UAP appear to be benign to civil air traffic, pilots should be advised not to maneuver, other than to place the object astern, if possible”.
A redacted version of Project Condign’s final report was made available to the public in May 2006, following a number of Freedom of Information Act requests.
There is in the UK – as in the US – a widely-held belief that the authorities know more about UFOs than they are telling the public, i.e. that there is a cover-up and a conspiracy on the subject. I think there are two relevant factors here. Firstly, the MoD was (and still is) an inherently secretive organization, despite the introduction of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. Secondly, it was the longstanding policy of the
MoD to downplay the extent of the Department’s interest and the scope of our official research and investigation – not all of which, especially post-Freedom of Information Act, generated the paper trail that one might expect. To give a practical example of this, we consistently told the UK’s Parliament, the media and the public that UFOs were of limited interest and “no defense significance”, while highly-classified intelligence studies such as Project Condign were being carried out away from public scrutiny. That said, despite the secrecy and the downplaying of MoD’s UFO-related work, I am not aware of any cover-up or conspiracy in the sense that proponents of such theories mean.
MoD’s UFO project was terminated in 2009 as part of a wider series of defense cuts. While the public no longer have an official point of contact for their sightings, pilots can continue to make reports on an ad hoc basis, though they would be well-advised to avoid the phrase “UFO” (or “UAP”) altogether – as they traditionally tended to do anyway – and use alternative phrases such as “unusual aircraft”.
In 2007 the MoD made a policy decision to declassify and release its entire archive of UFO files, following a similar decision by the French Government. This five-year program – in which I have been personally involved – began with the release of a first batch of files in May 2008. Subsequent batches followed and the program reaches its climax this year. To date, over 50,000 pages of documents have been sent to the UK’s National Archives. The UK and France are two of a number of nations that have opened their UFO files recently, in response to pressure from media and the public.
In concluding, I should say that I do not have a single, neat explanation for the UFO mystery and neither am I aware that anyone else in the UK Government has reached a definitive conclusion. However, having undertaken three years of official UK Government research and investigation into the UFO phenomenon, my assessment is that whatever the true nature of this phenomenon, it raises important defense, national security and air safety issues. Additionally, as pointed out in Project Condign’s final report, there are potential novel military applications that may derive from a proper scientific study of the phenomenon.
Nick Pope Washington DC May 2, 2013