Friday, December 4, 2009
How not to report a UFO
* Nick Pope
* guardian.co.uk, Friday 4 December 2009 19.00 GMT
* Article history
British UFO sightings in the early 1990s. Photograph: guardian.co.uk
How not to report a UFO
With UFO sightings at record levels, the Ministry of Defence should not have closed its hotline. This is a sad day for science
On December 1 the Ministry of Defence terminated its UFO project. After over 50 years of investigating the phenomenon, the plug was pulled in a most unceremonious way.
The news was slipped out so as not to attract attention. An amendment was made to an existing document in the freedom of information section of the MoD website, entitled "How to report a UFO sighting". The announcement states: "In over fifty years, no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom." It goes on to say that the "MOD will no longer respond to reported UFO sightings or investigate them". When rumbled, the MoD press office implyied that the money saved (about £50,000 a year) would be spent on body armour in Afghanistan. I doubt it will be. As someone whose 21-year MoD career included a posting in a financial policy division, I suspect that's not how it works. Finance has played a part in this, I am sure. The defence budget is under huge pressure and the UFO project was doubtless an easy target for the Treasury and MoD financiers.
Between the 1950s and the present day, the MoD received around 12,000 UFO reports. While most were misidentifications of ordinary objects and phenomena, about 5% remained unexplained. These included instances where UFOs were seen by police officers and pilots, or tracked on radar.
Having worked on the UFO project from 1991 to 1994, I am very sorry to see the MoD disengage in this way. I believe that where evidence suggests that UK airspace has been penetrated by an unidentified object, this must automatically be of defence interest and should be investigated properly. Not because I believe Britain is vulnerable to an alien attack, but because "if it doesn't behave like a conventional aircraft, we're not interested" is a very dangerous mindset. Britain remains vulnerable to espionage and terrorist attack. What if the "UFO" turns out to be a prototype spyplane or drone? What if it's a hijacked aircraft with its transponder turned off? This is not the time to take our eye off the ball but this is precisely what has happened. Because of the baggage that the term "UFO" carries, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.
My only hope is that – away from the public gaze – sightings from pilots and uncorrelated targets tracked on radar will continue to be looked at, albeit outside of a formally constituted UFO project. But by cutting out the public, the MoD will only fuel conspiracy theories. UFO sightings are at record levels and public interest is at an all-time high. Whatever one's views about them, this is a sad day for science. One of the greatest mysteries of the modern era is now much less likely to be resolved.