This material is meant as a resource for journalists, academics and students, and may be freely used and quoted from.
The MoD’s UFO project ran from 1953 to 2009, and in that time over 12,000 UFO sightings were logged and investigated. The MoD’s role was to determine whether there was evidence of any potential threat to the defence of the United Kingdom, or anything of more general defence significance. This interest had its roots in concerns that some UFO sightings might be attributable to Soviet aircraft on reconnaissance missions, or on missions to test the capabilities and effectiveness of our air defence network, both in terms of military radar and air defence fighters.
The work 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 names, the best-known of which was Project Blue Book. The UK’s program had no formal project name, so the media tend to refer to it as the MoD’s UFO project, as a ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ description.
Our conclusions were that most UFO sightings could be explained as misidentifications of known objects or phenomena, as hoaxes, or as psychological delusions. However, around 5% appeared to defy conventional explanation. We took no position on the nature of these unexplained sightings and remained open-minded about the possibilities. Thus, while we were aware of no evidence that any UFO sightings were attributable to extraterrestrial visitation, we didn’t rule out the possibility. It was regarded as a low probability/high impact scenario.
Despite the wider, societal implications of discovering extraterrestrial life, the MoD’s interest was narrowly focused on defence and national security, as illustrated by an unintentionally amusing Defence Intelligence Staff document from 1995, which read, in part:
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 late Nineties the MoD’s Defence Intelligence Staff commissioned a
review of many of the UFO sightings that the MoD had investigated over
the years. This intelligence assessment was known as Project Condign
and attempted some trend analysis, as opposed to reinvestigation of
individual cases. The final report was published in 2000 and ran to
over 450 pages. The title was “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defence Region”.
The MoD often uses the phrase “UAP” (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon) in
internal correspondence, so as to avoid the pop-culture baggage that
comes with the term “UFO”. I met President Obama’s former Chief of
Staff John Podesta in 2011 and briefed him on the MoD’s UFO project,
Project Condign, and our use of the term “UAP”. John Podesta and
Hillary Clinton both now make a point of using the term “UAP” when this
subject comes up in media interviews.
"No attempt should be made to out-manoeuver a UAP during interception".
Iworked for the MoD for 21 years, from 1985 to 2006. My postings included being assigned to the Joint Operations Center during the Persian Gulf War, where I was a briefer in the Air Force Operations Room. After that, I was assigned to the UFO project, where I worked from 1991 to 1994. I left the MoD in 2006 after my final posting, in which I served as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defense Security.
What were your views on the UFO phenomenon before you were assigned to the MoD’s UFO project?
I knew little about the subject and was broadly skeptical, but always conducted my research and investigations in an open-minded way.
How were MoD investigations undertaken?
We used to receive 200 - 300 sighting reports each year. The methodology of an investigation was fairly standard. Firstly, we interviewed the witness to obtain as much information as possible about the sighting: date, time, location, description of the object, its speed, its height, etc. Then we attempted to correlate the sighting with known aerial activity such as civil aircraft flights, military exercises or weather balloon launches. We could check with the Royal Greenwich Observatory to see if astronomical phenomena such as meteors or fireballs might explain what was seen. We could check to see whether any UFO sightings were corroborated by radar evidence. If we had a photograph or a film, we could obtain an analysis from air force imagery analysis staffs. We could also liaise with staff at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at RAF Fylingdales, a military base that houses space-tracking radar. Finally, on various scientific and technical issues, we could liaise with the Defense Intelligence Staff, though this is an area that I can't discuss, as many of the details remain classified.
What were the results of these MoD investigations?
I concluded that around 80% of UFO sightings were misidentifications of ordinary objects or phenomena: aircraft, aircraft lights, weather balloons, meteors, satellites, bright stars and planets, Chinese lanterns, etc. Some sightings were caused by people seeing secret prototype spy planes or drones. Other cases were hoaxes, or the result of a hallucination or psychological delusion. In around 15% of cases there was insufficient data to make a firm assessment. Finally, around 5% of cases appeared to have no conventional explanation, even after a thorough investigation. Of course, it’s important to stress that just because a UFO sighting was categorized as unexplained, it doesn’t follow that what was seen was extraterrestrial. Unexplained means unexplained – nothing more and nothing less.
In relation to the MoD's research and investigation into UFOs the terms "UFO Project" and "UFO Desk" have been variously used - which is correct?
Either is correct. When I had responsibility for this work I was posted to a division called Secretariat (Air Staff) - Sec(AS) for short. At other times over the years the UFO work was embedded in other MoD divisions with titles that included S4, S6, DS8 and DAS. On the basis that such 'alphabet soup' terms would be meaningless to most people, the media tend to use either "UFO Project" or "UFO Desk" as a 'does what it says on the tin' description of the work. The confusion could have been avoided had the MoD given the research a formal designation (as the United States Air Force did with its equivalent, Project Blue Book), but such a move would have run counter to the MoD's longstanding policy of downplaying the true extent of its interest and involvement in this subject.
What security clearance did you hold?
I held a TS/SCI security clearance, but I’m not permitted to discuss the specifics.
What constraints does your security oath place upon your being able to discuss your MoD work?
The UK’s Official Secrets Act is binding for life, so the fact that I no longer work for the MoD has no bearing here. However, the MoD has itself declassified and released most of its UFO files as a result of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, so I’m free to discuss most of my work on this subject. I cannot, of course, disclose any information that remains classified.
Are you the author of the intelligence assessment on UFOs known as Project Condign?
No. While I was involved in the work that led to the commissioning of this study, I had been posted to another MoD division by the time work started. I am aware of the identity of the individual concerned, but I’m not at liberty to disclose the name.
Do you believe that there’s life elsewhere in the universe?
I’m sure that there’s life elsewhere in the cosmos, because from observational data the laws of physics and the laws of chemistry appear to be constant throughout the universe, so unless you believe life on Earth is some sort of cosmic miracle, the same factors that gave rise to life here should have arisen elsewhere.
Do you believe we’re being visited by extraterrestrials?
I haven’t seen any definitive ‘you can take that to the bank’ proof, but I remain open-minded about the possibilities. We should always bear in mind that the skeptics need to be right every single time, but the believers only need to be right once.
Have you ever seen a UFO yourself?
Sadly, despite having investigated hundreds of other people’s sightings, I’ve never seen anything unusual myself.
A selection of articles by Nick Pope can be found here
A selection of declassified MoD documents relating to the MoD’s UFO project can be found here