What does UAP mean? Why has there been a recent uptick in sightings?
In early February, the U.S. military shot down four Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) in U.S. airspace. Rather than using the term UFO, the U.S. government now uses the term UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), meaning anything in space, in the air, on land, and in or under the sea that can’t be identified.
Read on to learn more about what UAP means and why there have been more UAP sightings recently.
UFOs and UAPs on the Rise
In early February, the U.S. military shot down four UFOs—referred to by the U.S. government as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs)—in U.S. airspace, asserting that they were a threat to national security. Since then, the government has concluded that the first object it took out was a Chinese spy balloon, but it continues to investigate the origins and purpose of the remaining three to discern their exact nature and threat potential. So, what does UAP mean, exactly? The recent uptick in sightings and the American government’s forceful response to them raises a host of questions that we’ll examine in this article.
What Does UAP Mean?
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) recently expanded its definition of UAPs. According to them, UAP means anything in space, in the air, on land, and in or under the sea that: a) can’t be identified, and b) could threaten national security and U.S. military and federal agency operations.
Experts say that the apparent uptick in UAP sightings in U.S. airspace likely results from:
- Enhanced radar capabilities. Following the United State’s takedown of the Chinese surveillance balloon on February 4, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) adjusted its radar system to make it more sensitive, increasing the number of objects it’s now able to detect.
- Recent U.S. government efforts to reduce stigma around sightings. This is a change for the U.S. government, which spent decades codifying policies that stigmatized and deliberately discouraged military pilots from reporting UAPs—in part to prevent foreign enemies from exploiting the information and sowing chaos.
- In 2020, the Pentagon responded to increased reports of unidentified aerial phenomena sightings by U.S. Navy and Air Force pilots by setting up a UAP task force.
- In July 2022, the US government further publicly strengthened its commitment to identifying and addressing the potential national security threat of UAPs by creating the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO).
What “Legitimate” Objects Are Up There?
The government classifies a number of UAPs in U.S. airspace as “unremarkable” (meaning, not a threat to national security), including thousands of balloons used by the U.S. military and government agencies, researchers, and hobbyists. Among them:
- More than 1,700 NASA balloons with payloads the size of three small cars—These balloons rise 22 miles into Texas airspace and are on scientific missions that last for months—for example, to assess the ozone layer’s health.
In addition to balloons, other “unremarkable” UAPs include unmanned aerial systems, like drones, and objects classified as “clutter,” such as birds and plastic bags.
Experts also warn that new technology, including future stealth bombers and fighters and hypersonic missiles could be mistaken for UAPs.
How Many Sighting Reports Are Made Each Year?
U.S. officials say that the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) received 510 UAP reports by the end of August 2022. Of these:
- 144 were made to the Pentagon over a 17-year period ending in March 2021.
- 366 were recorded by the AARO, including 247 new reports made between March 2021 and August 2022, and 119 made before March 2021 that the government didn’t include in its earlier reporting.
The U.S. government deemed 195 of the 366 UAPs “unremarkable,” including:
- 163 balloons “or balloon-like entities”
- 26 crewless aerial systems
- Six objects categorized as “clutter”
The government has not characterized the remaining sightings.
How Does the U.S. Military Typically Respond?
U.S. officials have responded cautiously to questions about the government’s policy on addressing the UAPs it’s identified:
- At a February 8 press conference, Gen. Pat Ryder asserted that the U.S. has a “variety of options” to respond to UAPs—including shooting down objects that violate or threaten the U.S., its airspace, and its citizens.
- In a February 13 White House briefing, National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby stated that:
- The U.S. military monitors, determines the threat level of, and responds to each UAP situation on a case-by-case basis.
- The US will continue to examine the circumstances around the four recently downed UAPs to a) protect national security, and b) inform future policy decisions on the country’s UAP response.
Experts say that although the military responded strongly to the four UAPs in U.S. airspace in early February—shooting them down with a heat-seeking, supersonic, short-range missile—until now, the government has viewed similar objects long floating in U.S. airspace as a low priority, choosing to tolerate rather than take them out.
In terms of the U.S. military’s response to UAPs in the months and years ahead, some say that the recent spate of sightings in U.S. airspace necessitates that the government confronts what it’s spent decades avoiding: its security vulnerabilities. They argue that:
- The government must shift its focus from taking down any object that looks like it might be a threat, to identifying objects that pose legitimate threats. To do this, the U.S. needs to update decades-old radar technology that lacks necessary filtering capabilities, expand its UAP monitoring beyond the skies of the North Pole to include areas south of Alaska, and improve UAP intelligence sharing among government agencies.