Should Congress Create an OSD Office for UAP Issues?
Many were surprised to see that the House Armed Services Committee included a provision in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (see §1652) requiring the Secretary of Defense to create a staff position to orchestrate UAP data collection and analysis. Is this a good idea? Should the Senate agree to this proposal and include it in the annual Defense Authorization bill submitted to the President?
At the outset it is important to applaud this initiative on the part of Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona. After all, aerospace vehicles of unknown origin and capability are violating restricted U.S. military airspace on a recurring basis. While the reporting may be subject to collection biases, these vehicles seem to be especially interested in the activities of U.S. Navy ships and carrier strike groups, U.S. nuclear facilities, and DoD test ranges. Some could be next-generation Chinese or Russian drones capable of eluding U.S. air defenses. Notably, an unsophisticated guerrilla force in Yemen recently used relatively primitive drones to incapacitate 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil refining capabilities in 2019, so this is not a trivial matter. That successful attack was achieved despite the fact that the Saudis have spent billions deploying some of the world’s most sophisticated air defense systems. Clearly, the threat of small, unmanned aircraft with concentrated intelligence and firepower capabilities needs to be taken seriously. Congratulations to Rep. Gallego for recognizing the national security significance of the UAP issue.
The language in the FY 2022 House Armed Services Committee bill indicates that the primary goal of the proposed new UAP office is to: “Synchronize and standardize the collection, reporting, and analysis of incidents regarding unidentified aerial phenomena across the Department of Defense." This is an important goal because there are still many shortcomings in UAP reporting procedures despite the efforts of the UAP Task Force. Among other things, there needs to be a full accounting of what systems were contacted by the services to collect data for the recent Congressional UAP report. Did the USAF contact the Space Fence organization or the Upgraded Early Warning Radar System (UEWR) or X-Band radar operators or the Global Infrasound Detection System etc.? If so, what responses were received? What pertinent systems or data were withheld due to classification (a serious and growing problem)?
Although vital, it is not enough to merely “standardize collection and analysis” if we want to determine the origin and capability of these craft or the intent of those controlling them. Standardized reporting would ensure that incidents are recorded regardless of the source, but that data will merely be the result of random incidents unless we work to develop an effective collection program. Passive reliance on UAP data collected from random encounters is not a plan commensurate with the potential risks to U.S. national security. Had we sought to track other breakthrough weapons or technology developments in that manner, we might still be wondering if the Russians or Chinese had developed ICBMs.
To make serious headway we need to do much more, including:
1). Identify telltale signatures associated with UAPs. This requires sophisticated technical analysis of existing data (e.g., radar, IR, optical, infrasonic etc.). Assessments of the propulsion technologies potentially used by these vehicles could also help to determine what distinctive UAP signatures to look for.
2). With that information, and a baseline review of the effectiveness of existing sensor systems vis-á-vis UAPs, we can determine which U.S. collection capabilities are best suited to detect and track UAPs.
3). Once that is determined, we can devise a collection strategy that efficiently leverages America’s vast array of technical sensor systems. Recognizing the many important intelligence requirements these collection systems are already supporting, it will have to be an efficient collection plan with minimal impact on other missions.
4). We should also apply AI and machine learning analysis to UAP data in the hope of gaining new insights and iteratively improving our collection activities.
5). Additionally, we should also use AI and machine learning technology to filter the large and growing volume of civilian UAP data. New UAP photos and videos are being submitted to private UAP organizations on a daily basis worldwide. Although civilian UAP reporting today has limited value if any for DoD, some of it is genuinely baffling and potentially useful if the authenticity can be established. A minimal investment would support an AI capability that winnowed the wheat from the chaff, thereby leveraging information collected by smartphone cameras around the world.
6). DoD and the Intelligence Community should also welcome and encourage mainstream scientific interest in the UAP issue. The Galileo Project, a purely civilian effort to study UAPs led by the former Chairman of the Harvard astronomy department, is evidence of this recent transformation. The many scientists belonging to the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies offer further proof of serious scientific interest in the UAP issue. In light of such interest, either Congress or the Executive Branch could establish a panel of cleared civilian engineers and scientists willing to advise and assist USG collection and analysis efforts. The panel could be formed under NASA auspices or those of DoD or the IC. Either way, there is ample precedent for such collaboration.
From even this brief assessment of next steps it should be clear that however well-intended, a small OSD UAP office lacking resources or authority is not the answer. Neither the UAP Task Force nor a small OSD office has the skill set and heft to effectively manage such a technically and bureaucratically complex undertaking. Indeed, a new OSD UAP office could have a pernicious effect if it led members of Congress to neglect the UAP issue afterward because they thought a small OSD office was sufficient to fix the UAP problem.
As a former OSD intelligence staffer, I can vouch for the fact that the mere establishment of a small OSD UAP office is unlikely to accomplish much. Only the most senior OSD staff have much leverage with the services and agencies and then only when they are clearly acting at the behest of the Secretary. The situation is difficult enough vis-á-vis the military services, but an OSD staffer’s influence with the intelligence agencies is even more tenuous since these organizations report to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) as well as the Secretary of Defense. Indeed, it is often difficult for even the Secretary of Defense to implement change across the department, especially where intelligence issues are concerned.
How would a small OSD office develop, implement and manage a multi-service and multi-agency collection program? Or initiate a contract to develop new algorithms for strategic radar systems to enable them to identify UAPs? Who would perform the UAP data analysis and identify the collection priorities? If the current UAP Task Force established by the Secretary of Defense is insufficient, what reason is there to believe a small OSD office would do any better? If it only had one or two personnel, like the original UAP Task Force, it would have a nearly full plate simply attending coordination meetings, reviewing the latest incident reports and briefing members of Congress and senior Executive Branch officials.
While it is true the UAP Task Force needs to be replaced by a more permanent solution, I suggest Congress allow the Secretary of Defense and DNI a chance to identify the best location for this function as they already have these issues under review at the direction of the Deputy Secretary of Defense. In the meantime, Congress should continue to insist on answers to key questions and place the responsibility where it belongs -- the only place where the authority currently exists to address these issues given the number of powerful organizations that need to be compelled to cooperate -- which, for now, is at the level of the Secretary of Defense and the DNI.
Sometimes the most effective thing Congress can do is simply to ask those in charge the right questions and use the power of the purse as needed to ensure that appropriate answers are provided. Congress should be asking: What data is required to assess the potential UAP threat and what is the plan for collecting and analyzing that data? What signatures and sensors are most useful for detecting and tracking UAPs? What would it cost to apply a different set of algorithms to our massive Solid State Phased Phased-Array (SSPAR) radars to ensure they have the ability to track emerging drone and UAP threats? Posing such questions helps to ensure accountability. It also helps to ensure that the principals in Congress, DoD and the IC remain engaged on the issue.
A generic problem associated with the House Armed Services Committee proposal to establish an OSD UAP office concerns the impact over time of Congressional organizational mandates. Every time Congress mandates another position on the OSD staff it further limits the ability of the Secretary of Defense to reorganize his staff in response to changing circumstances in the years ahead. Once Congress mandates establishment of an office it takes subsequent legislation to eliminate or modify the organization, always a lengthy and tedious process. It certainly could prove necessary to mandate an organizational change regarding the UAP issue, but it seems premature to do so before the Deputy Secretary of Defense has even had time to review the recommendations of the internal review she instituted in June.
Ideally, the UAP function should be managed by an organization that already works effectively with the Secretary of Defense and DNI and has demonstrated proficiency managing complex collection and analysis tasks. Single service organizations like the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) are unable to provide the advocacy needed to institute a new function across the entire intelligence community. They are also unlikely to have the agility needed to expeditiously manage innovative contracts and research. Furthermore, the USAF has a lot of historical baggage and is therefore not trusted by the public on the UAP issue. It also doesn’t help that the USAF is still not acting like a team player responsive to civilian direction from OSD. In that regard, it was incredible to see that in the recent unclassified report to Congress on UAPs that the USAF alone was explicitly singled out for not sharing information. NASIC also reports on these matters through a USAF chain of command, unlike DIA or the Space Security and Defense Program (SSDP) that report directly to both the DoD and IC leadership. DIA and the SSDP also have the skill set, resources, and heft to make things happen within the highly competitive and complex system that manages U.S. intelligence collection and analysis.
In seeking answers to the national security implications of the UAP phenomenon, I suggest Congress, DoD and the DNI pay special attention to the capabilities of America’s most powerful and sophisticated strategic radar systems. Strangely, it seems these powerful instruments have not detected or reported what much smaller tactical radars have been observing off the East and West coasts of the United States. This has occurred it seems despite the fact that the massive early warning radar at Beale AFB was pointed almost directly at the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group during the famous “Nimitz incident” in 2004 in which strange aircraft were tracked for days by the USS Princeton and observed at close range by multiple USN aviators. Similarly, the East Coast counterpart to the Beale radar located on Cape Cod seems not to have detected or reported any of the scores and scores of UAP incidents that have occurred off the East coast of the U.S. since 2015. Is this really true? If so, why? These questions should be thoroughly examined.
If this deficiency can be remedied by merely modifying radar processing algorithms (the radar’s “filters” or “gates”) then it may be possible to quickly and inexpensively achieve a massive increase in UAP and drone detection and tracking. However, even if this proves to be a relatively inexpensive prospect, since no new hardware would be required, and even though it can be accomplished without in any way degrading the current vital strategic warning mission of these systems, bureaucratic resistance seems assured. Again, this is not something an OSD staffer can overcome alone. Maintaining visibility for policymakers and the public will be crucial to overcoming the inevitable inertia and resistance to change that the immense DoD bureaucracy is renowned for.
The good news for America is that major progress in solving the vexing UAP mystery can be achieved without large new expenditures or the disruption of other vital activities. Congress should demand answers and results and hold the Secretary of Defense and DNI accountable, but it should also grant the leaders of these sprawling organizations the flexibility to manage implementation. The timing is especially propitious now because the Deputy Secretary of Defense has asked the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI) to prepare recommendations on how best to manage the UAP issue.
In conclusion, if Congress remains actively engaged, we should soon find that the UAP mission has a new and more permanent home in an organization with the skills and access needed to at long last determine the national security implications of these strange vehicles.
Thankfully, Rep. Gallego and his colleagues in the House and Senate are in a good position to achieve further progress by continuing to demand answers to critical questions. Congress should require further action as needed but in fairness the Administration has been responsive to date and seems to recognize the need for change. They are already working to develop proposed reforms and if Congress makes clear what needs to be accomplished they are likely to respond appropriately.
If the Administration doesn’t answer the mail then it will be time for Congress to move from identifying the goals to stipulating how to achieve them. Meanwhile, it is exceptionally commendable that Congress and the Administration are engaging on this issue, putting national security ahead of any residual fears stemming from an outdated stigma. It is also encouraging to see that there are still some issues that both parties can work together on in the interest of national security. Kudos to Rep. Gallego and his colleagues as well as their Senate counterparts, in particular Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio and their staff.