14th May 2008
The much-vaunted proactive release has now started, with 8 files available for free (for a short time only) download from the National Archives.
The timescale for the full release has now been extended from 3 years to 4 years. This is probably due to the time it has taken for the MoD to redact the documents, removing individual's names and addresses, and any sensitive military details.
It would be superfluous to comment in detail on the individual cases covered by the files, but it may be worthwhile commenting on less obvious aspects. At the time of writing this, I have only managed to read about 400 pages from an estimated thousand pages. This page will be updated after I have managed to read all of the files.
Firstly, it is important to understand something about the structure of the MoD in relation to UFOs. I have listed some of the key departments involved with a brief summary of their relevant activities below:
(referred to as 'Sec(AS)2' in this article)
During the period covered by these files, the department title changed from DS8 (Defence Secretariat 8) to Sec(AS)2 (Secretariat Air Staff 2). This was the front-end of the UFO report handling process, informally it could be described as the "shop window". Reports from the public, police, civil aviation authorities, and military were usually routed to here. Following receipt, reports were examined in order to a) determine the probable cause if the explanation is reasonably obvious from the description, eg navigation lights in an airlane or near an airport, and b) whether or not the report could be of defence significance.
The term "defence significance" is open to interpretation, and was in most cases dependent on the individual working on the UFO desk at any given time to judge. In general, a report was considered of defence significance only if it suggested that airspace integrity in the UK had been compromised, or if there was a military threat in terms of enemy intelligence gathering activity or evidence of a physical threat, eg weapons or missiles fired.
Although Sec(AS) could request assistance from the departments itemised below, they did not have general access to the other department's files, or knowledge of all of their activities. On rare occasions, UFO reports bypassed Sec(AS)2 altogether. In one case, a report from a Vulcan bomber crew was sent to Sec(AS)2. The report was annotated in the Sec(AS)2 files to the effect that they would not necessarily be informed of the outcome of investigations conducted by other departments into the report.
Defence Intelligence 55DI55's primary role is to gather intelligence on ballistic missiles. The department therefore had expertise in space vehicles, which is presumably why they were involved in handling UFO reports. In the 1970's it was decided that only UFO reports considered to be of possible defence interest would be passed to DI55, but it is apparent from the files which I have so far had time to view that this 'filtration process' had either been changed or forgotten and that most, if not all reports were routinely sent to DI55.
Sec(AS)2 were supported by DI55 mainly in establishing whether or not a particular report might have been caused by a satellite decay for instance. Like Sec(AS)2, DI55 had no defined resources to apply specifically to UFO reports - UFOs were an additional task, probably considered as a bit of a distraction and a nuisance in most cases. In January 2000 (following the production of the 'Condign' report, which Sec(AS)2 had no involvement in and were not informed of), DI55 decided that their routine involvement in the handling of UFO reports was no longer required.
Ground environment operations
Ops(GE) managed the radar networks operated by military airfields as far as I can ascertain. They were closely related to LATCC(Mil). Either branch could furnish Sec(AS)2 with radar data on the rare occasions when it was thought necessary. On at least one occasion in the past, Ops(GE) conducted their own UFO investigation independently of Sec(AS)2.
London Air Traffic Control Cente (Military)
LATCC(Mil) were based in West Drayton, and maintained a radar watch on UK airspace for defence purposes. As well as displaying the output from military radar installations, they had connections into the civilian radar network, allowing a composite view of UK airspace. They also acted as an operational interface between civilian airports and the military.
It is a little-known fact that the radar displays were filtered to remove returns which behaved outside the normal performance characteristics of conventional aircraft. This was to remove spurious returns and allow operators to focus on what was percieved as the main threat during the cold war, ie Soviet bombers.
Military Air Traffic Operations
MATO was, I believe, an administrative section based at West Drayton. The function was probably logistical, scheduling low flying training areas, servicing and distributing Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), etc. Because of their awareness of scheduled military air exercises etc. they would have been a useful resource for Sec(AS)2.
Air Force Operations Room
AFOR was the RAF command and control centre. Reports from LATCC(Mil), BMEWS, and individual RAF stations would be routed here, and decisions as to what if any response to a given situation would be taken eg scrambling an aircraft. Outside normal office hours, AFOR was responsible for checking UFO reports and assessing any threat presented by them.
Ballistic Missile Early Warning System
BMEWS was essentially long-range directional radar. The network had several sites around the world staffed by NATO personnel and co-ordinated by the USA. The primary task of the network was to detect and track potential missile launches from the Soviet Union or their allies. The UK component of the network was based at Fylingdales, North Yorkshire. Because of the technology employed and the nature of their mission, Fylingdales had to have some awareness of satellite activity, and had limited satellite tracking capability. This was another resource that Sec(AS)2 could request assistance from.
Quality of scans
Having seen the quality of the paper records in files previously released, the quality of the scans is probably as good as can be expected. I am puzzled by the fact that the DI55 files are produced in negative format though, and this does make it difficult to print pages. In at least one case, the minute sheets are missing or illegible - this is the listing of the enclosures in the file, and is critical to establishing whether or not all of the documents originally in the file have been reproduced. Also, the file covers are poorly reproduced. These are sometimes useful to identify file title changes, quick general identification of the contents, and circulation records.
Update - 16th May 2008
I had a very fast response from the departmental Records officer at the MoD, advising that the negative images were generated due to a sofware issue in the converion process to .pdf format. This issue has since been resolved.
Redaction is a necessary evil for two reasons; to protect confidentiality of members of the public, and to protect sensitive military information. The documents are quite heavily redacted, sometimes unnecessarily obscuring location details, and there are some ridiculous redactions, such as the age of a witness in one case. There are some errors in the redaction, in a few cases witness names have not been redacted. I have come across one case where an entire enclosure of 3 pages has been redacted for some reason. This might just be that the enclosure was mis-filed and unrelated to UFOs. I shall be appealing against a large number of redactions, because if they apply the same sloppy policy to future releases which are then appealed, the workload will be enormous to re-redact all of the files published by that time. The MoD need to get a grip of this aspect if they want to reduce their workload, which is after all the objective of this programme from their point of view.
Update - 16th May 2008
I had a very fast response from the departmental Records officer at the MoD, advising that any requests for review of redactions need to be submitted via The National Archives.
I have already mentioned the lack of minute sheets in at least one file. In the same file, there appears to be a missing enclosure - DEFE31-173 enclosure 223. I shall be making enquiries about both of these issues and any similar anomalies which I come across.
From what I have seen so far, the contents are typical of documents previously released. A large number of low-quality reports with occasional, more interesting reports. Also typically, there is little evidence of even the interesting reports being properly investigated. One irritating but common feature is repetition of reports. This can come about for several reasons, and nearly all of the reports are duplicated once, while a few reports have four copies. Part of the reason for the duplication is a level of paranoia that Sec(AS)2 would not be informed about a particular report, which could lead to considerable embarrassment. Because of this, a level of duplication was deliberately engineered into the reporting system, for example, reports by the CAA were forwarded to Sec(AS) and LATCC(Mil) according to procedure. LATCC(Mil) have a procedure to forward copies of reports from the CAA to Sec(AS)2. This of course means that Sec(AS)2 receive a duplicate copy. The situation is aggravated when a witness makes reports both to a local airport, and to their local police station for instance.
Overall, the contents appear to be quite useful in terms of what can be done with them - analysis by witness type, stimuli, geography, date, time, etc can be conducted and meaningful conclusions arrived at. From what I have read so far though, there are very few reports (perhaps only one percent) which are really interesting in themselves. I have yet to read any policy documents so I can't remark on them as yet.
I will periodically update the links below to articles relating to the released documents.
If you wish to comment on this article, please email the Condign team.