Flashpoints | Security

UFOs, Secrets, and Signaling

Are we being visited by aliens, or are we learning something about military secrecy?

UFOs, Secrets, and Signaling
Credit: Flickr/Kenneth Lu

At one crucial point in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove,” the U.S. president and his aides summon the Soviet ambassador to Washington to explain that a rogue U.S. Air Force general has just launched a surprise attack on the USSR. The ashen-faced Soviet ambassador explains that if any of the American B-52s reach their targets, it will automatically trigger a top-secret doomsday device which will cloak the world in lethal radiation. Asked why the existence of the device was never revealed, since its purpose was presumably to create a deterrent, the ambassador replies that the Soviet premier was scheduled to announce it the following week, adding “As you know, he loves surprises.”

As with much of “Dr. Strangelove,” the moment is played for laughs, but speaks to a deeper truth about warfare. Weapons — not just nuclear weapons — are valuable not only for their pure destructive capability but because of the perception that they can either compel or deter action by their mere existence.

There is an inherent and potentially paradoxical balancing act here. In order to be effective as a deterrent, a potential adversary has to understand the capability of a weapon — but not to understand enough to be able to be able to defeat it.

I am reminded of this balancing act every time there are new videos, photos, or revelations about the U.S. military’s encounters with UFOs.

To be clear, there is a possibility that the increasing quantity of evidence from such encounters represents something truly beyond the human experience. That possibility is, however, fairly remote. More prosaically, if more likely, that growing body of evidence represents a set of breaches in the wall of secrecy around advanced military hardware. And that possibility, though admittedly less interesting than the idea of aliens drag-racing against F/A-18s, is worth some exploration as well.

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To start with, the bulk of what might broadly be termed military capability is hardly secret. Even for reflexively closed, authoritarian-minded states, there simply is not much point in hiding the basic technical details of weapons systems or military formations. The proliferation of high-quality digital cameras and satellite imagery means that almost any military asset will be photographed sooner or later, even if extraordinary measures are taken to hide it. Even a single photograph of an aircraft, armored vehicle, or warship contains a huge amount of exploitable information: dimensions (from which performance capabilities and limitations can be extrapolated), types and number of sensor and countermeasures systems, weapons systems, and so on.

Only the largest and richest countries can afford to truly hide their secrets by building production and testing facilities far from civilization and testing them only at times when no prying eyes — civilian or otherwise — will be able to see. But relying solely on secrecy is a brittle and highly limiting kind of security.

It is far better, in the vast majority of cases, to roll in the opposite direction and create a mythos of effectiveness around a weapon or a unit, backed with enough verifiable data to solidify it in the minds of potential opponents. After all, technical capabilities do not translate automatically to real-world effectiveness. Crew training and tactics, maintenance and availability of spare parts, environmental factors, an overarching strategy and other factors also play significant roles. Those factors are generally both harder to know in general and harder to compensate for.

But suppose someone did manage to develop and build a novel and sophisticated military capability completely without detection. Presumably such an asset would represent a massive investment of capital, technical knowledge, and specialized training. Letting it sit in a secure hangar, sealed off from the world, waiting for a war which might never come would represent a waste of most of its potential. Perhaps its developers might have sound reasons to avoid pulling the curtain back completely — the risk of loss or compromise of its capabilities, say — or to avoid revealing that its capabilities were leavened by equally significant weaknesses.

There are a few possible sub-versions of this (admittedly incomplete) explanation, including a highly classified American capability being tested in scenarios where its existence would naturally leak and come to the attention of adversaries without risking compromise; or a foreign capability being tested against American air defenses. We may learn more when the U.S. government releases its highly-anticipated report into UFOs in the next few weeks — though if past efforts are anything to go by, the report may simply supercharge the world of mutually incompatible and halfway-plausible explanations. If the intent behind these incidents was to create confusion, it seems likely to have been a success.

If, of course, there was intent.