Condign: 1997 Policy Reviewed

  MoD’s Review of UFO Policy 1997

Text by David Clarke

Periodically the MoD’s Air Staff have reviewed their procedures for handling UFO reports and responses to inquiries from members of the public, MPs and the media. These reviews often occur at periods when there is a sudden increase in public and media interest, for example during the UFO flap of 1967 and in 1978 following the release of the Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

In January 1997 the head of Sec(AS)2, M.J. Fuller, circulated a minute to a number of MoD branches who had responsibility for UFO matters. Titled “Unidentified Flying Objects – Policy” it emphasised Sec(AS)’s increasing UFO workload, particularly in the form of letters from members of the public:

“…many…actively seeking information of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms, or seeking a detailed investigation/explanation for what has been reported (allegations of abduction by aliens, out of body experiences, animal mutilations, crop circles etc).”

Sec(AS) said that increasing media attention in 1996-97 – some of which was attributed to the publication of a book by her predecessor - had almost doubled the work of the desk officers involved “to the detriment of other tasks more directly relevant to the work of the branch.” In the circumstances, he wrote, it seemed timely to “reappraise the situation with a view to clarifying the Department’s role and requirements.” In an attachment to the minute he outlined current MoD policy on UFOs as follows:

“MoD’s interest in ‘UFOs’ is limited to examining reported sightings to establish if such activity might have a defence significance (i.e. whether the UK Air Defence Region has been breached.)”

Among the MoD branches who received Sec(AS)’s letter were DI55 and DAO (Directorate of Air Operations) to whom the secretariat had routinely copied all UFO reports since 1967. These branches are also included on the distribution list for military signals reporting UFO sightings to Whitehall. However, the MoD’s public position – stated many times both in Parliament and in correspondence – remained that Sec(AS) was the single and only focal point for all UFO matters. Staff received technical advice from “specialist branches” where necessary. By 1995 the identity of these branches was made public when distribution lists naming them appeared in UFO records opened at The National Archives. An annexe to Sec(AS)’s minute spells out the respective roles of Sec(AS) and these “specialist branches” precisely.

“Sec(AS)2a acts as the focal point for MOD Policy on ‘UFO’ issues and maintains a simple record for all reported sightings, staffs sighting reports and public correspondence relating to alleged sightings to other MOD Branches as necessary, responds to Parliamentary and Ministerial inquiries, and deals with written and telephone enquiries from members of the public.”

As for UFO work undertaken by “specialist branches” Sec(AS) states:

“DAO [Directorate of Air Operations] has no interest in extraterrestrial matters and UFO sightings are considered only in relation to a possible military threat to the UK’s air defences. DI 55 is responsible for studying aerodynamic missiles and is the DIS repository for UFO reports forwarded by Sec(AS): they have no evidence to date to support the extraterrestrial hypothesis.”

In a long, detailed response to Sec(AS) dated 25 March 1997 the head of DAO said he believed “[although] the [existing] policy is fine, how we manage public enquiries probably needs some re-consideration.” But he also raised a thorny topic which MoD had long avoided, asking if “… we need to fund investigation of a minority of incidents which may be inexplicable.” He also emphasised the necessity of having “an electronic database and management system against which sightings may be uniformally handled and recorded.”

As a result, in a later minute, dated 2 April 1997, Sec(AS) proposed that to reduce their workload in future Sec(AS) would copy to DAO and DI55 only those reports which fell into three categories:

    1. Documented sightings – “reports that are supported by evidence such as photographs, video recordings or radar traces, where these cannot be readily explained and are provided by sources who appear to be reliable”
    2. Corroborated sightings – “a series of reports apparently describing the same phenomenon and provided by separate and independent sources, where these cannot be readily explained”
    3. Timely sightings – “reports of a phenomenon that is currently being observed and might, therefore, be capable of detection by AD [Air Defence] or other assets such as military aircraft or radar observers”

In response to DAO’s question of further funding to allow detailed investigation of “inexplicable incidents” Sec(AS) was adamant:

“Ministers’ policy is clear: we are not funded to investigate all unexplained phenomena and our interest is confined to any occurrence that may have an air defence significance. The Prime Minister [John Major] sees no case for funding research into extra terrestrial ‘UFO’ phenomena.”

As for the creation of an electronic database, Sec(AS) said: “This is not something we ourselves see any need for.”

DIST were late in responding to this exchange due to major staff changes and “other priorities.” But when the head of DIST did respond, on 25 April 1997 he appeared to be at odds with the approach set out by his opposite numbers in Sec(AS). Not only did DIST prefer to use the term UAP in preference to UFO (see below) but he also disagreed over the extent of DIST interest in UFOs as defined by Sec(AS).

DIST said their interest in UFOs was not solely to determine if UK Air Defence Region had been breached, but to assess “all source intelligence” which reports might contain. He set out his own explicit terms of reference for MoD interest in UFO reports as follows:

  • whether the UKADR has been breached
  • what intelligence is revealed on military capabilities of other countries
  • whether scientific and technical information of military significance is revealed

And he added a most significant statement which appears to contradict the MoD’s public policy on UFOs:

“…in the light of the above we do not consider that MoD can have no interest in extraterrestrial matters and needs to keep an open mind on whether ‘unidentified’ phenomena may have significance.”

Crucially in terms of the study which was then in planning stage he added:

“The lack of evidence to date in DIS on the extraterrestrial hypothesis has to reflect the fact that we have not carried out any analysis [our emphasis].”

This concern echoed that of DIST’s predecessor who in a 1995 exchange of correspondence with Sec(AS) had made a similar point. This can be summarised in the question: how could the MoD claim that UFOs were of no defence significance if they had never carried out a proper study to determine what UFOs were? As DIST explained in his 1997 letter to Sec(AS):

“Effectively the UAP source is unproven for DIST purposes, a situation of concern even if we never expect it to be as reliable or valuable as other sources.”

Therefore, he believed it was necessary for DIST to continue receiving copies of reports that fell within the three categories proposed by Sec(AS). Secondly, he felt “a reliable system for the retention and analysis of data” was needed. This would take the form of a database of UAP reports drawing from DIS’s paper archive which dated back to the 1970s, earlier files having been destroyed. “The proposed filtering of reports [proposed by Sec(AS)] will reduce the volume considerably and we need to take the opportunity to initiate a database now,” he continued.

“Once the database is established and populated we would commission a limited analysis to determine whether reports possess any intelligence, S&T [scientific and technical] value or discernible patterns (locations, features, performance) and establish the residue of significant unidentified events.”

He then proposed to work with DAO to draw up the database and conduct, within DIST, “a limited analysis of events” followed by a review of the situation once the database was set up “no later than 12 months hence” (i.e. 1998).

These proposals clearly worried Sec(AS) for in a minute dated 13 May 1997 they pointed out: “We need to be very careful about expanding UFO business and, thereby, sending the public a misleading message about the extent of MOD’s interest.”

Responding to those concerns, DIST replied on 28 May as follows: “I have no wish to ‘send the public a misleading message’ and I will (as always in the DIS) take appropriate steps to ensure that the public do *not* become aware of this minor project.”

Seemingly, DIST were not at this point fully aware of the implications for them of the Freedom of Information Act promised in the manifesto of the new Labour Government (elected on 5 May 1997)!

Copyright David Clarke 2006


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