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UFOs



Nick Pope’s position statement on UFOs is reproduced below, and is followed by some of Nick’s best-known quotes, and related Q&A material reflecting the questions Nick is most frequently asked in media interviews and by the public.

This material is meant as a resource for journalists, academics and students, and may be freely used and quoted from.


The Ministry of Defence has a dual role as a policy-making Department of State and as the UK’s highest-level military headquarters – a role broadly analogous to the US Department of Defense. I worked there for 21 years, and from 1991 to 1994 I ran their UFO project.

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:

“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 (most reports came from the public), the sightings that were of most interest to us 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 photographs and films that specialist imagery analysis staffs 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’s UFO files, and in the files of the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority.

The UK’s best-known and most compelling UFO encounter is known as the Rendlesham Forest incident. The sightings took place over three successive nights in December 1980, near the twin military bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge, in Suffolk. These were UK bases operated by the United States Air Force (USAF). There were several dozen military witnesses, the most senior of whom was the Deputy Base Commander. On the first night, two members of the USAF – John Burroughs and Jim Penniston – who had been sent to investigate what was initially thought to be the crash of a light aircraft encountered an unidentified craft, which had apparently landed in a small clearing. Penniston got close enough to see strange symbols on the side of the craft, which he briefly touched. At this point the craft rose slowly above the trees and then accelerated away at high speed. A subsequent USAF investigation of the landing site showed fresh indentations in the frozen ground, scorch marks on the sides of the trees, and radiation levels that the MoD’s Defence Intelligence Staff assessed as “significantly higher than the average background”. The UFO was briefly tracked on military radar. There were several less spectacular sightings on the next night, and then on the third night a UFO was witnessed by the previously skeptical Deputy Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Halt, who had been told that a UFO had returned, and went out with team of around half a dozen men, to investigate. At one point the mystery object fired a narrow beam of light down at their feet, and later it was seen firing light beams down at a particularly sensitive part of the Woodbridge base. Despite extensive investigations, neither the US nor the UK government ever found any conventional explanation for these events, which remain unexplained to this day.

In 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.
Project Condign’s final report was classified Secret UK Eyes Only. One of its most controversial conclusions 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 derive from a better understanding of the phenomenon. Additionally, the air safety implications of the phenomenon were judged to be important. One recommendation read as follows:

"No attempt should be made to out-manoeuver 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 manoeuver, 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. Parts of the report remain classified and have not been released.

There is in the UK – as there is in the US and elsewhere – a widely-held belief that the authorities know more about UFOs than they’re letting on. I think there are two relevant factors here. Firstly, the MoD was (and still is) an inherently secretive organization, even after the introduction of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. Secondly, it was the longstanding policy of the MoD to downplay the true extent of the Department’s interest in UFOs, and the full extent of our research and investigations. To give a practical example of this, we consistently told Parliament, the media and the public that UFOs were of “no defence significance”, while in parallel, 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 the MoD’s UFO-related work, I’m not aware of any cover-up or conspiracy in the sense that supporters of such theories mean. In short, if there’s a spaceship hidden away in an air force hangar somewhere, I’m afraid it isn’t in the UK.

The MoD’s UFO project was terminated in 2009 as part of a wider series of defence cuts, but while there’s no longer an official point of contact for the public to report their sightings, pilots can continue to make reports on an ad hoc basis, though they would be well-advised to avoid the phrase “UFO” altogether – as they traditionally tend to do anyway – and use alternative phrases such as “UAP”, “unusual aircraft” or “unconventional helicopter”.

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 nine-year program – in which I have been personally involved as both a consultant and an official spokesperson – began with the release of a batch of files in May 2008 and is due to be completed in the latter half of 2016, when an eleventh and final batch of files is released. To date, nearly 60,000 pages of documents have been made available at 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 the media and the public.

I do not have a single, neat explanation for the UFO phenomenon, and neither am I aware that anyone else in the UK government reached a definitive conclusion. However, having undertaken three years of official government research and investigation into the matter, my personal assessment is that whatever the true nature of this phenomenon, it raises important defence, national security and air safety issues.



Nick Pope’s Best-Known Quotes

The skeptics have to be right every day, but the believers only have to be right once.

One can think of extraterrestrial visitation as being the ultimate low probability high impact event.

Questions such as whether or not we’re alone in the Universe and whether or not we’re being visited are some of the biggest and most profound questions we can ask.

The UFO community talks about Disclosure, but it all depends on what there is to disclose. Governments have already released a lot of fascinating documents on the subject, but there’s no smoking gun, so we’ve already had disclosure, but with a little d, not a big D.

I’ve seen no evidence that the government has an alien spacecraft hidden away in an air force hangar somewhere. If they do, I wasn’t told about it, and I would have known.


Q&A

How did you get assigned to the MoD’s UFO project and what else did you do in your MoD career?

I worked 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.

 

Selected Articles

A selection of articles by Nick Pope can be found here

Selected Documents

A selection of declassified MoD documents relating to the MoD’s UFO project can be found here

 


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