UFOs - Conspiracy Or Indifference?


Nick Pope details the British Government’s policy and knowledge in relation to UFOs, and examines the evidence for a cover-up.

On 5 November 1990 a squadron of Royal Air Force Tornado jets were flying over the North Sea, on their way back to their base.  Suddenly, and to the amazement of all the experienced pilots, their aircraft were overtaken at high speed by a UFO.  None of these trained observers were able to identify the craft that made our most sophisticated aircraft look obsolete by comparison, and a report of this encounter was sent by signal to the Ministry of Defence.  What happened next?  Were the pilots visited by anonymous intelligence officers, threatened with the Official Secrets Act and warned to keep quiet about their sighting?  Or is the truth of the matter somewhat different?

Many ufologists are obsessed with the idea that elements of the British Government are involved in a conspiracy of silence about UFOs, and are actively suppressing the truth about this phenomenon.  Such claims have persisted for years, but are often taken on faith rather than evidence.  As is often the case when one examines such allegations critically, the real situation is not quite as people suppose.

As far as we know, the earliest official British involvement in the UFO mystery was an intelligence study carried out in 1951.  This study was mentioned in a 9 August 1952 letter from the Air Ministry to the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who had asked for a report on UFOs.  The study concluded that all UFOs could be explained in conventional terms, and was clearly based heavily on the data that had been amassed by the United States Air Force, who had been conducting their own official studies since 1947, under the Project names Sign, Grudge and Blue Book.  Edward J Ruppelt headed Project Grudge and then Blue Book from 1951 to 1953.  He made reference to British interest in UFOs in his 1956 book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  He told of a visit by two RAF intelligence officers who arrived at Blue Book headquarters with six sheets of questions.  The answers they took back clearly influenced the reply given to Winston Churchill, and indeed the intelligence study referred to may have been based in part or in whole upon this data.

What lay behind the British interest in UFOs was actually concern that some of them might be an unknown type of Soviet aircraft testing the air defences of the United Kingdom.  The Cold War was serious business, and the Air Ministry was more concerned with Russians than Martians.  There was no corporate interest or belief in UFOs as extraterrestrial craft.  It was simply the standard military philosophy that you need to keep a watchful eye on your airspace, and ensure that, to the best of your ability, you are able to identify any craft operating within your air defence region.

Government, the civil service and the military are naturally conservative organisations, and this mindset made it difficult for the Establishment to respond in any meaningful way to emerging speculation from ufologists, some of whom were arguing that UFOs were extraterrestrial in origin.  Naturally conservative desk officers found such speculation difficult, and tended to ignore anything they couldn’t explain.  To illustrate this point it is interesting to note that the aforementioned Air Ministry letter to Winston Churchill failed to even make mention of Foo Fighters - strange balls of light that had been seen by Allied and Axis pilots during the Second World War.  Had Churchill been deliberately kept in the dark, or was the omission indicative of nothing more sinister than the closed minded attitude of the Air Ministry?

A letter dated 24 June 1965 gave a further insight into the true attitude of the British Government.  In a reply to the US Department of the Air Force the Ministry of Defence explained that their policy was “ … to play down the subject of UFOs and to avoid attaching undue attention or publicity to it.”.  The whole tone of the letter betrayed the fact that the Ministry clearly regarded the subject as a waste of time.

Files now available for viewing at the Public Record Office in Kew shed further light on the British Government’s policy and opinions on UFOs.  On the one hand, it is clear that there have been some quite extraordinary UFO incidents in British airspace.  The files detail numerous incidents where UFOs were seen by military witnesses and detected on radar.  They tell of several incidents where RAF jets were scrambled in unsuccessful attempts to intercept UFOs.  The Ministry have acknowledged for decades that UFO reports such as these defy explanation.  Some 10% of sightings remain unexplained, even after a rigorous investigation.  The problem is that these same files - some of which were previously classified Secret - strongly suggest that no further action is taken once an investigation has been completed.  This applies even to cases of attempted interception.  All this points to an attitude of indifference or incompetence, as opposed to anything more sinister.

Of course, the Ministry is in a no-win situation, and die-hard conspiracy theorists will always interpret the facts in ways that support their own viewpoint.  In this way, entirely innocent events are twisted into something that fits in with what seems to be an almost psychological need to believe in a cover-up: UFO documents withheld under the standard thirty year rule that applies to all Government papers are described as being “suppressed”; the media’s refusal to give airtime to various crackpot UFO stories is attributed to the use of a D-Notice, and Air Ministry officials who in years gone by paid the occasional visit to UFO witnesses in order to elicit further information about particularly interesting cases are portrayed as sinister Men in Black!

But let us return to the incident discussed in the opening paragraph.  What happened to the report submitted by the pilots whose Tornado fast jets were casually overtaken by a UFO?  The answer is that the signal was simply placed on file in Secretariat (Air Staff)2a - the MoD division charged with investigating UFO reports.  Object unexplained - case closed.  This lack of follow-up action was exactly what happened in the aftermath of the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident in December 1980.  Lt Col Charles Halt submitted a report to the Ministry about UFO activity near the two military bases of RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge.  The report (dated 13 January 1981) told of how abnormally high radiation readings were taken from a site where a small, metallic UFO was seen to land.  The Ministry of Defence never even acknowledged Halt’s memorandum!

The official Ministry of Defence policy on UFO sightings is to examine them for evidence of any threat to the United Kingdom.  It seems clear that if such examinations occur at all, they are cursory affairs, carried out with extreme reluctance.  Many ufologists believe the Ministry of Defence should be taken to task for its stance on the subject, but increasingly, the complaint is not one of conspiracy.  Some ufologists are concerned not that the Ministry knows too much, but that it knows too little.  A cover-up would be deplorable, they say; but having your head in the sand because of the ignorance or prejudice of a few officials is far worse.

The Ministry of Defence has produced a form on which people should record the details of their sighting.  The information requested includes the date, time and location of the encounter, together with a description of the object, and observations about the meteorological conditions at the time of the incident.  These forms should be held by every RAF base, police station and civil airport in the country, as these are the sorts of places that receive UFO reports from the public. 

The completed forms are then sent to Secretariat (Air Staff)2a at Ministry of Defence Main Building in Whitehall.  They should investigate each sighting, in the first instance by trying to correlate it with aircraft activity, astronomical events or other conventional objects or phenomena.  Sec(AS)2a are assisted in these investigations by specialist divisions who offer help and advice on matters such as radar evidence or satellite activity.  Out of the several hundred reports received each year, 95% can be explained.

There are several ways that people can get hold of official information about UFOs.  The simplest way is to write to Sec(AS)2a at the MoD, and put your questions to them.  A general enquiry about UFOs will elicit a standard reply, but under rules about Open Government specific questions should receive specific answers, where the information is available.

Another option is to pay a visit to the Public Record Office at Kew.  Under the Public Record Acts files where the most recent paper is more than thirty years old are opened to the public.  There are currently around a dozen UFO files which can be inspected, and these detail some interesting sightings from the Fifties and Sixties.  They also give an invaluable insight into the way in which these cases were handled at the time.

Some ufologists are forging links with their local Members of Parliament, and asking them to table formal, written Parliamentary Questions about UFOs.  There have been over thirty such questions tabled in the last year or so, and MPs do seem to be becoming increasingly aware of the serious defence and national security issues at stake.

The final piece in the puzzle may be provided by the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act.  The Government has a commitment to introduce this legislation, and although this will take at least two years, it should mean that the public can gain access to much more UFO information than is currently the case.   

Conspiracy theorists are obsessed with the idea that a number of military installations in the United kingdom are involved in secret UFO research.  The base most frequently associated with such stories is RAF Rudloe Manor in Wiltshire.  This was first drawn to the attention of ufologists in Timothy Good’s book Above Top Secret, which explained how he was picked up by the MoD police whilst walking around the perimeter of the base.  Later, he encouraged Ralph Noyes, former Head of DS8 - the forerunner of Sec(AS)2a - to telephone details of a UFO report to the base, to see if they would accept it.  They did.

Sceptics have pointed out that in view of the fact that military bases have frequently been targeted by terrorists, there is nothing unusual about the police taking a close interest in anybody with a camera who is loitering suspiciously around an RAF base.  They also point out that as all military bases should have the MoD’s standard UFO reporting form, there is nothing unusual in the fact that staff at Rudloe Manor were prepared to take details of a sighting.

While RAF Rudloe Manor have now confirmed that they had previously been involved in the subject, they state that this was only in a co-ordinating role.  The reports were simply forwarded to Sec(AS)2a, and no further action was taken.