As Defense Bill Stalls in Senate, Experts Are Divided Over the Pentagon’s New UAP Investigations Unit.

Senators, scientists, and defense experts express mixed opinions about the DoD’s latest efforts to address military encounters with unidentified aerial phenomena.

In Washington, lawmakers have locked horns over an annual defense bill that authorizes funding for the Pentagon and outlines its policies for operation.

The Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4350), an annual piece of legislation that will allocate close to $780 billion for the Department of Defense budget once it passes, has stalled in the Senate following a failed procedural vote, and ongoing disagreement over an amendments package for the bill.

At the center of the current disagreement is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has blocked movement on the package unless an amendment is added placing import restrictions on goods from Xinjiang province, China, where the country has been accused of crimes of humanity, and even genocide against Uyghur Muslims in the region.

Although a version of the bill already passed in the House of Representatives with largely bipartisan support, the Senate bill is now unlikely to pass before early 2022. Central to both versions of the bill are defense funding increases aimed at ensuring the DoD is equipped to confront any potential conflicts with China and Russia in the years ahead.

However, while U.S. concerns about foreign adversaries played a significant role in shaping the legislation, another issue that has seen bipartisan support in both the House and Senate versions of the bill involves the DoD’s collection of data on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), and the challenges to national security they might represent.

On November 4, 2021, a proposed amendment to the NDAA filed by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) outlined a comprehensive proposal for future UAP investigations by the DoD. Among its chief objectives, the proposal, titled “Establishment of Structure and Authorities to Address Unidentified Aerial Phenomena”, detailed the establishment of an Anomaly Surveillance and Resolution Office (ASRO), which would become the successor to the Navy’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF). The amendment was later co-sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio.

Senator Marco Rubio in 2019 (Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Key provisions within the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment included calls for line organizations capable of rapid-response investigations of UAP, the collection of data about UAP activities around nuclear facilities, and a focus on the apparent transmedium capabilities displayed by some UAP. The proposal also outlined requirements for annual reports and semiannual briefings to Congress about the ASRO’s findings, and a range of other functions.

However, as many lawmakers were leaving Washington on their way home for the Thanksgiving holiday, the DoD quietly announced that it had already established a new official UAP investigative group on November 23.

“Today, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, in close collaboration with the Director of National Intelligence, directed the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security to establish within the Office of the USD(I&S) the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG) as the successor to the U.S. Navy’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force,” read an official release that appeared on Tuesday, November 23, at the DoD’s website.

“The AOIMSG will synchronize efforts across the Department and the broader U.S. government to detect, identify and attribute objects of interests in Special Use Airspace (SUA), and to assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security,” the release stated, adding that oversight will be provided to the new DoD effort by an Airborne Object Identification and Management Executive Council (AOIMEXEC) “to be comprised of DoD and Intelligence Community membership, and to offer a venue for U.S. government interagency representation.”

The timing of the DoD release—just two days before Thanksgiving, and as the Senate had already announced a recess for the holiday—was interesting, to say the least. Although the DoD’s surprise move may have superficially looked like a victory for proponents of the U.S. government’s involvement in UAP investigations, responses were swift on social media and elsewhere, as many voiced concerns about the sudden development.

“As a former OSD staffer myself, I’m shocked that the [Deputy Secretary of Defense] would assign the UAP function to an oversight staff with no UAP funding, line authority, contracting, command or technical capabilities,” wrote Christopher Mellon, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence in an open letter at his website to Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-AZ). Gallego had been the first to call for the establishment of a new government office of UAP studies, as proposed in language that appeared in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4350) that was passed on September 23. 

“Indeed, the inability of USDI to engage effectively on the UAP issue is why so little has changed or been accomplished since 2004,” the letter stated. Mellon, also a former Minority Staff Director with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, appeared on History’s Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Luis Elizondo, a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Special Agent and former employee of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence who led the Pentagon’s AATIP initiative, and appeared on camera alongside Mellon in two seasons of Unidentified.

“On the surface, this may appear to be a good thing for UAP transparency,” Elizondo told The Debrief. “But let’s not forget that the Office of the USD(I) is the same office that has been managing this effort thus far, and is also the same office that has spent the last four years obfuscating data and impugning those involved in this effort.”

“In no way should Congress view this move by the Pentagon as being helpful towards the Gillibrand initiative,” Elizondo added, noting that the Pentagon’s new UAP effort “may ultimately hinder the sharing of UAP information with the American people and our closest allies.”

Following the DoD’s announcement, The Debrief reached out to the office of Senator Gillibrand and asked whether she supports the establishment of the Pentagon’s new UAP investigative effort, in advance of the Senate passing its own version of the NDAA.

“While we appreciate DoD’s attention to the issue, the AOIMSG doesn’t go nearly far enough to help us better understand the data we are gathering on UAPs,” said Lizzie Landau, Press Secretary at the Office of Senator Gillibrand, speaking on behalf of the Senator in an email to The Debrief.

“Senator Gillibrand and Representative Gallego’s framework does much more to address the UAP issue while also maintaining public oversight. The legislation covers civilian oversight and establishes an advisory committee, which would bring in experts and academics outside the government to participate in ongoing investigations,” Landau said.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in 2019 (Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

The Debrief also contacted the offices of several Senators who co-sponsored Gillibrand’s amendment, including Senators Rubio (R-FL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) but had not received responses as of the time of publication.

In June 2021, the Director of National Intelligence submitted a preliminary report on UAP to Congress, based on the findings of the Navy’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), the predecessor of the DoD’s new AOIMSG. With the passage of the Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA) for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 2021), the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had directed “the DNI, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the heads of such other agencies as the Director and Secretary jointly consider relevant, to submit a report within 180 days of the date of enactment of the Act,” of which a public version was also made available on June 25, 2021.

However, with the DoD’s preemptive establishment of a new UAP investigative group ahead of the Senate’s vote on its version of the NDAA, some have raised concerns about whether Congress will be kept in the loop about the Pentagon’s UAP findings in the absence of provisions being passed into law like those which appeared in last year’s IAA.

“I can assure you that our intention is to be as transparent about this phenomena as we can,” said John Kirby, Press Secretary for the United States Department of Defense, in response to questions raised about the new DoD group by reporters during a recent press conference.

Considering the lingering questions about transparency, The Debrief contacted the Department of Defense and requested clarification on whether information will be provided to Congress and the public about its ongoing UAP investigations under the AOIMSG.

“The Department is committed to transparency with the Congress and the American people while balancing its obligation to protect classified information,” Department of Defense spokesperson Susan Gough told The Debrief in an email, who added that unclassified and classified information would be made available to Congress going forward.

“In executing the AOIMSG mission, the Department will keep the Congress fully and currently informed in both unclassified and classified detail of its activities and findings to enable effective congressional oversight and accountability to the public,” Gough said.

UAP Task Force Briefs Joint Chiefs on UAP
The Pentagon Press Briefing Room seal (Credit: DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando).

Although the DoD declined to comment specifically on the pending legislation, Gough added that “The Department is eager to work with Congress as it completes its Fiscal Year 2022 legislation to posture the AOIMSG for success.”

While many view the establishment of the AOIMSG by the DoD as an effort to halt attempts by Congress to bring about a new government office of UAP studies through legislation, one interesting outcome that could result from the Gillibrand amendment being passed into law is the existence of more than one UAP investigative office within government, or perhaps more likely, a widening of the priorities of the AOIMSG at the direction of Congress once the NDAA passes.

“If the DoD’s new office and Sen Gillibrand’s amendment are accomplishing roughly the same thing, there isn’t a problem,” says Jack Weinstein, a retired USAF Lieutenant General and Professor of the Practice of International Security with the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.

But rather than taking issue with whether the DoD’s AOIMSG will match the framework outlined in the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment, Weinstein voiced concerns about the importance of the proposed ASRO when compared with other issues the military faces, many of which are addressed in the current version of the Senate’s NDAA.

“[T]he issue surrounds the value of this office,” Weinstein told The Debrief. “When we look at problems facing US national security, both internal and external, this amendment holds no value to protecting Americans.”

“Internal to DoD, removing extremists from the ranks [and] eliminating sexual assaults is vastly more important than ASRO,” Weinstein said. “Moreover, cyber threats against this nation, the fracturing of our democracy, politicizing the health of Americans, Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border, [and] Chinese nuclear buildup, are much more important than this office and amendment.”

“Finally, not passing a budget is damaging our national security,” Weinstein said. “Let’s focus on real threats facing our nation not this issue.”

Although Weinstein expressed sentiments that no doubt mirror those held by many in the academic establishment and government—that UAP does not appear to represent a threat, nor any kind of pressing concern to our national security—others think more should be done to address a phenomenon the DoD admits its military personnel frequently encounters.

“I think that to fully understand these kinds of developments, you have to be very knowledgeable about how the Pentagon—because that’s where [the AOIMSG] came from—interfaces with and works with Congress,” says Mark Rodeghier, President and Scientific Director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, who expressed disappointment at what he perceives as the narrow focus of the DoD’s newly established group compared with the broad framework outlined in the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment.

“I’m disappointed in the limited scope of the AOIMSG, limited to things dealing with the military, and within that, limiting to areas that are special access areas, special flight areas, [and] training areas,” Rodeghier told The Debrief. “And yes, definitely as people have pointed out, [the AOIMSG is] not in an office that is operational. It’s an oversight office. So those things give one pause about really how comprehensive this is going to be.”

However, Rodeghier also says that rather than having an intentionally narrow focus, the DoD’s intent with the AOIMSG may simply be to concentrate its efforts in airspace where the abundance of military encounters with UAP is occurring, as described in the June 2021 ODNI report.

“The Defense Department is saying, okay, let’s just cover this one area that we think is most important, where we can be in control, and let’s see what develops on the legislation.”

Nonetheless, Rodeghier doesn’t see why the DoD’s new group couldn’t work compatibly with another UAP investigative office, should the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment end up being passed into law in the final version of the FY 2022 NDAA.

“I don’t see why there can’t be two parallel tracks here,” Rodeghier says.

The DoD’s November 23 release also states the AIOMSG will be provided oversight by an Airborne Object Identification and Management Executive Council (AOIMEXEC) “to be comprised of DoD and Intelligence Community membership, and to offer a venue for U.S. government interagency representation.” The proposed Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment also includes provisions for the establishment of an advisory committee, the Aerial and Transmedium Phenomena Advisory Committee (ATPAC). But unlike its current DoD counterpart, the ATPAC will not draw exclusively from the intelligence community for its membership, and will instead include members from civilian groups like the Galileo Project at Harvard University and the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), a collaborative think tank of scientists and other professionals that explore scientific applications for the study of UAP.

Unidentified Aerial Phenomena
Screenshot of purported UAP captured by US Navy F/A-18 pilots in 2015. (Image Source: The Department of Defense)

Rich Hoffman, an Executive Board Member of the SCU, told The Debrief that he had “deep concerns” about the DoD’s establishment of the AOIMSG in advance of the Senate NDAA being passed.

“My concerns are the lack of transparency, the lack of outside scientific involvement and collaboration and the understated degree of oversight it proposes,” Hoffman said in an email.

Hoffman told The Debrief that the SCU would prefer to see the DoD’s ongoing efforts to study UAP aided by civilian investigative groups, as proposed within the wording of the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment.

“SCU is positioned to help the government understand the UAP phenomena, something that we are adequately capable of doing having researchers with decades of study under their belts,” Hoffman said.

Robert Powell, also an SCU Executive Board Member, says that the organization has endorsed and has asked its members to contact their elected officials “and request their active support and co-sponsorship of the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment (SA 4810).”

“The SCU has also made suggestions to individual senators on ways to strengthen the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment,” Powell told The Debrief. “Furthermore, the SCU supports the Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment as a much more open, much more detailed, and an overall far better option than the AOIMSG.”

Among the range of issues raised by those advocating UAP studies, arguably the most consistently recurring theme involves questions over government transparency. Citing a recent interview with Colm Kelleher, Ph.D., a former program manager for Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS) who oversaw work it conducted as part of a DIA program called the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program (AAWSAP), Mark Rodeghier expressed frustration over how the information it collected on UAP will never be publicly disclosed.

“In the interview, [Kelleher] said that none of this stuff from AAWSAP is ever gonna get released,” Rodeghier said. “I mean, isn’t that discouraging, disappointing, [and] ridiculous.”

“It’s not work on how we can get a hypersonic missile,” Rodeghier added. “It’s UFO investigations. How can that be classified at this point? And the answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t be classified now.”

Expressing similar sentiments, Rich Hoffman said that the SCU hopes the DoD’s ongoing UAP investigations—whatever form they may take—will be more open than past government studies of UAP.

“SCU seeks to have the Program be as open and transparent as possible,” Hoffman told The Debrief.

“The public won’t tolerate yet another closed-door study on the UAP subject.”


Follow and connect with author Micah Hanks on Twitter: @MicahHanks