MJ Banias is editor-in-chief of The Debrief, a defence, technology and science news website. He is the author of The UFO People: A Curious Culture, and you can follow him on Twitter @mjbanias.
In the waning days of 2020, senators in the United States slipped a request into an omnibus bill asking the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Pentagon’s UAP Task Force to provide a report to Congress, and the public, concerning military encounters with mysterious objects that make incursions into protected airspace. The report was to be completed within 180 days. On June 25, the nine-page preliminary report was handed to Congress, and while it didn’t satiate UFO enthusiasts’ desire to prove that aliens are zipping around our planet, it indicated that the past two decades have been host to roughly 144 unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) incidents witnessed by military personnel.
The report, titled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” provides a basic and early assessment of the events across a dozen intelligence agencies. Not intending to be a scientific study, the document says about 80 UAP cases were clearly physical in nature and “involved observation with multiple sensors,” including radar, various remote sensing equipment, human observation and cameras. Moreover, the report indicates 11 of the cases were considered “near misses,” where military pilots almost struck or were struck by these objects.
While the report did indicate that many of the 144 incidents undoubtedly had prosaic explanations – such as natural atmospheric phenomena, airborne clutter or foreign adversaries – the report lumped 18 incidents into an “other” category, stating the objects had “unusual movement patterns or flight characteristics” and the ability to remain “stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, manoeuvre abruptly or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion.” While the authors of the report admit some of these incidents could be caused by observation error, sensor error or purposeful sensor spoofing (when an adversary projects a false target for the sensor to track), the report states the UAP Task Force “may require additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze and characterize some of them.”
The fact of the matter is the government has really no idea what’s going on, but shortly after Congress received the report, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, Kathleen Hicks, ordered the Pentagon to begin the process of formalizing its investigation into UAP, stating, “It is critical that the United States maintain operations security and safety at DoD ranges,” and that “incursions into our training ranges and designated airspace pose safety of flight and operations security concerns, and may pose national security challenges.”
So while it probably isn’t aliens, some of the incidents are clearly bizarre enough that the authors indicated some aerial incursions may have been caused by “a non-governmental entity.” It seems there are a whole host of unknown things in the sky that are giving the American military cause for concern.
So if the Americans are getting back into the UFO game, where does this leave Canada?
“We have seen reports of a [U.S.] Task Force and the pending report on the topic of unidentified flying objects,” a spokesperson from Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan’s office told me by e-mail before the UAP report was released. “The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) do not typically investigate sightings of unknown or unexplained phenomena outside the context of investigating credible threats, potential threats, or potential distress in the case of search and rescue.” (When I contacted them after the report was issued, they told me they had “nothing more to add at this time.”)
The head-scratching double-speak here resides in the terms “credible” and “potential” threats. If an unidentified or unknown aircraft makes an incursion into Canadian airspace and has been seen by pilots or military personnel, is that not a “credible” or “potential” threat to security and safety? As Chris Rutkowski, author of the coming book Canada’s UFO Files: Declassified, put it to me: “If there is an unidentified aerial vehicle operating in Canadian airspace, how can anyone know its threat potential? It’s unidentified.”
It’s not as if UFOs stop at the border. Pilots of commercial aircraft also report these objects over Canada. Canada’s public reporting system, known as the Communication Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings (CIRVIS), is chock full of incidents, some of which are classified as “near misses,” where pilots were forced to take evasive action to avoid hitting these unknown objects mid-flight. In May, for instance, Delta Air Lines pilots flying over Saskatchewan in a Boeing 737 at 39,000 feet reported seeing unknown “traffic” above them. Air Traffic Controllers on the ground said nothing was on the radar.
“There are reports where pilots don’t see anything, but their plane’s Collision Avoidance System goes off telling them something is close by,” Mr. Rutkowski explains. “We have reports where radar operators ask pilots in the air to look out their windows to help identify a mysterious radar hit. Many of these reports are compelling and show that something is going on.”
“As part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) mission, our personnel work 24-7 monitoring, identifying and tracking air traffic approaching and travelling through North American airspace,” David Lavallee, a NORAD public affairs officer, said in an e-mail. “If an aircraft cannot be identified by electronic or communicative means, NORAD may launch aircraft to visually identify the aircraft and take appropriate actions based on threat assessments. For operational security reasons, we do not discuss specific criteria under which NORAD aircraft are launched.”
Mr. Lavallee went on to state that if an unidentified aircraft does enter the Canadian Air Defence Identification Zone, an internationally recognized area that encircles sovereign Canadian airspace, NORAD may launch aircraft to intercept, depending on the security risk. Unless these incursions enter Canadian airspace, NORAD will not report them to Nav Canada, the private agency that handles air traffic control infrastructure; therefore, they will not be made publicly available.
Outside of scrambling jets to intercept an airborne “track of interest” – NORAD’s name for a UFO – neither NORAD nor the CAF seem to have a group investigating “credible” reports made by military or civilian pilots.
That job falls to Nav Canada. However, the agency has previously gone on the record stating any incidents that pose a potential threat are immediately forwarded to the CAF, NORAD or Transport Canada.
But Transport Canada has admitted it rarely investigates UFO cases. “Reports of unidentified objects can rarely be followed up on as they are, as the title implies, unidentified,” Transport Canada told Vice News in April.
Every single Canadian agency meant to look into unidentified objects in Canadian airspace seems to pass the buck on to the next agency.
“The fact that pilots are seeing unknown objects in the sky, or our radar systems are seeing these objects, or our aircraft’s collision avoidance systems are seeing these objects – isn’t this somewhat concerning?” wonders Mr. Rutkowski. “I mean, forget aliens. These could be military craft from foreign countries. Or even more concerning, if our radar systems are coming back with false radar hits, or our technology isn’t working properly, or pilots operating aircraft filled with people are seeing things that aren’t actually there, shouldn’t this be looked into?”
Last year, the Pentagon stated it is currently investigating the UFO phenomenon. Recently, even NASA’s new director, Bill Nelson, explained the space organization was also going to look into the subject. Canada is in a prime position to do the same – and potentially lead the charge. More important, there is significant precedent here. Canada’s Department of National Defence ran UFO investigations until 1968, when it transferred the project to the National Research Council, which ran a UFO desk (there was literally a desk and filing cabinet) until 1995, when the project ceased.
“With today’s defence capabilities, any unidentified object in our airspace should be treated as a matter of concern,” Timothy Sayle, director of the Internal Relations Program at the University of Toronto and a historian who specializes in declassified records, told Vice. “They should be tracking identified and unidentified objects in Canadian airspace, and determining what they are and if they pose a threat. ... It concerns me that there is so much secrecy around this.”
It may be time for Canada to dust off its UFO desk and, instead of simply letting the Americans handle it, take the lead when it comes to keeping eyes on our skies.
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