Frequently Asked Questions
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 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 names, the best-known of which was Project 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 visitation, 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 some internal MoD discussions. Despite the wider societal implications that would result from the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the MoD’s interest was narrowly focused on technology acquisition. Scientific and technical intelligence experts in the 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 sighting reports 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 type of corroborative evidence, e.g. in terms of radar data, or photographs/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 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.
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 assessment 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 could 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 UFO research and investigation – not all of which, especially post-Freedom of Information Act, generated the sort of paper trail that journalists might hope for. To give a practical example of this, we consistently downplayed the true extent of our interest and involvement in the subject with the UK’s Parliament, the media and the public, telling them that UFOs were of “no defense significance” while, at the same time, highly-classified intelligence studies such as Project Condign were being carried out, well away from public scrutiny. That said, despite the secrecy and the downplaying of the MoD’s UFO-related work, I am not aware of any cover-up or conspiracy in the sense that proponents of such theories mean.
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 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 is expected to be completed in late 2015 or in 2016. 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.
The 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 to make sighting reports, civil and military 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”. Such sightings are investigated as air safety incidents by the UK Airprox (Air Proximity) Board, to avoid contradicting the MoD’s line that UFO sightings are no longer investigated.
How did you get assigned to the MoD’s UFO project and what else did you do in your MoD career?
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.
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