UAP in Crowded Skies: Atmospheric and Orbital Threat Reduction in an Age of Geopolitical Uncertainty

The Sol Foundation

Executive Summary

In an effort to bypass contentious debates over disclosure and the existence of extraterrestrial life, the Sol Foundation commissioned this report to explore policy reforms that could help the United States and other governments address the challenge of unidentified aerial (or anomalous) phenomena (UAP) while building bridges between potentially interested constituencies and existing stakeholders.

Despite these objectives, this paper does not present evidence or data to support a particular theory of UAP or quantitatively establish their existence. Instead, the authors simply take as fact that thousands of UAP are reported every year by citizens around the world and that many national governments have disclosed significant military and civilian encounters with unidentifiable craft or aerial phenomena. These events have sparked panic, wonder, military responses, and governmental and scientific investigation. The question of what UAP are or are not does not change the very real outcomes of UAP events.

This paper accordingly outlines a possible reform agenda that can have significant value to national governments and publics alike, independent of verification or disclosure of what causes UAP phenomena. To some extent, this paper is also a mapping exercise to show the breadth of serious policy discourse that is possible beyond the questions of UAP existence and disclosure. Methodologically speaking, we treat UAP as a “black box”—an unknown or poorly understood entity that nonetheless produces clear effects in its environment—and hope thereby to show that the opaque character of UAP in no way precludes a national and international policy reform effort to address them.

Policy reform should focus on the public safety and national security risks that UAP events pose in increasingly unstable aerospace and outer space control regimes. These events are of broad interest to leaders and participants in civil and military aviation, defense, scientific, and commercial outer space endeavors as well as national governments facing a tense geopolitical environment. Moreover, public safety and national security are the two areas where a lack of action on developing robust UAP policies has the most significant consequences, irrespective of UAP identity. The unpredictability of the phenomena poses a considerable flight hazard to individual aviators, and their interaction with new, disruptive technologies such as drones, commercial and military space vehicles, and hypersonic missiles creates broad risks to international order.

The current low-trust climate of technological change and geopolitical competition, however, leaves governments poorly prepared to respond to UAP. The crowding of the skies by not only UAP but drones, surveillance balloons, and hypersonic missiles is causing existing norms and multilateral conventions to reach their limit for effective coordination and control. In near-Earth orbit and outer space, commercialization and renewed geopolitical competition combined with an endemic space junk crisis further complicate transparency and predictability. As more and more vehicles cross thresholds between territorially sovereign airspace and the commons of atmospheric and outer space, the potential for cataclysmic accidents and miscalculations caused by UAP increases. The current predicament suffers from a series of irreconcilable boundary problems under current regimes such as the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. While divisions between civilian and military aviation control have resulted in few catastrophic accidents, technological changes and the distribution of those technologies make a future without such events unlikely.

Moreover, preventing accidents from becoming geopolitical crises rather than mere tragedies will require consistent and transparent surveillance for effective and trustworthy attribution. In a moment when public trust is low and international norms and cooperation are waning, attribution becomes much more difficult. Unlike the Cold War period, when efforts were made to build infrastructure and practices for de-escalation, such as nuclear hotlines, protocols for incidents at sea and submarine bumping, and prohibitions on anti-satellite weapons, the last decade has seen a sharp increase in states and non-states pushing the limits or outright violating norms and international law regarding airspace. During this same escalation period, we have also witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of actors who can participate in these domains and an increase in incidents for which no attributable actor can be ascertained.

Without a renewed multilateral effort to improve cooperation in surveillance, the potential for crisis and even catastrophe is high. This paper will accordingly examine existing international regimes for aerospace surveillance, control, and threat reduction and make recommendations for reforms that can accommodate the complex layers of aerial phenomena on the planetary and orbital scale in which UAP events occur. In brief, these recommendations are as follows.

The development by the International Civil Aviation Organization of an annex to the Chicago Convention treaty containing guidelines for how civilian aircraft should report and respond to UAP encounters as well as binding amendments that would obligate states to report military encounters with UAP that could affect civil aviation safety, ensuring that such reports both respect national security boundaries and provide provisions for the investigations of such incidents.

An international UAP working group in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) by which states would develop and implement a process for data- and information-sharing about UAP events in space as well as a voluntary protocol for reporting such events that would not undermine participants’ national security. Additionally, COPUS could amend a key international space agreement, the Outer Space Treaty, to require its signatories to participate in these measures and to undertake peaceful, nonmilitary UAP investigation and related scientific research.

International, military-to-military measures for preventing UAP events from accidentally triggering incidents between states that might lead to conventional or nuclear war. Such measures include bilateral or multilateral UAP communication protocols; ballistic nuclear submarine patrol pattern and Nuclear Posture Review adjustments; the upgrading of command, control, communication, and intelligence (C3I) systems to include enhanced UAP discrimination capabilities; the integration of UAP scenarios into nuclear command exercises; and a joint UAP study and information exchange.

As many of these recommendations are not immediately feasible in the atmosphere of distrust and tension wrought by great power competition, the conclusion to this paper offers a starting point. International collaboration among scientific, aviation, amateur astronomy, and other civil society organizations could be used to found a supranational UAP research and study organization. It could serve as a forum through which states might reestablish trust and eventually participate to their mutual benefit, which in turn could lead them to participate in state-based and military-to-military measures. For the time being, we can only hope that national governments will consider the need to prioritize reforms during this divisive era in national and international politics.

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