May 10, 2020

The Navy UFO Incident

A year or so ago, the internet was aflutter about reports that the Navy had set up a program for reporting UFOs, or at least encounters with unidentified aircraft. Why exactly they did this was not and is not clear, with some taking it as semi-official confirmation of the existence of either UFOs or some sort of highly-classified aircraft with performance vastly greater than anything the public knows about.


Nimitz and cruiser Princeton, major participants in the "Tic Tac" incident

I want to focus on this article from The War Zone's Tyler Rogoway. Let me start by saying that Tyler Rogoway is probably the best defense journalist on the internet. He's knowledgeable, writes well, and almost always manages to produce some insight that's worth reading. But in this case, I think that leads him to the wrong conclusion.

The foundation of his argument is the infamous "Tic Tac" incident from 2004, when the Nimitz strike group ran into a series of unexplaned phenomena off Baja California, primarily faint radar contacts that behaved in ways impossible for any current aircraft. Aircrews also reported several strange phenomena, including an object that looked like a Tic-Tac that maneuvered at supersonic speeds.

Rogoway's argument that this incident proves that something real is going on hinges on the fact that the Nimitz group was the first to go to sea with a technology known as Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC). CEC is an extension of the concepts behind systems like NTDS, taken to the next level. Instead of just sharing rough target tracks for the sensors of individual platforms to localize and engage, it allows the sharing of targeting-quality tracks between members of the network. This means that a cruiser equipped with CEC could fire missiles at targets detected by, say, an E-2 Hawkeye without ever turning on its own radar. This gives an unprecedented amount of detail about the airspace around a battlegroup by integrating multiple sensor pictures. As a result, the CEC detections are essentially proof that there's something behind all of this.

My problem with this argument is simple. This was the first test of CEC on this scale, and as a result, the odds of there being some kind of glitch in the system are extraordinarily high. Moreover, the behavior of these "UFOs" matches what we'd expect from some reasonably straightforward failures of the CEC system, while also pushing the laws of physics if they were physical objects.

The problems begin with the nature of radar itself. While the idea of sending out radio waves, then picking them up when they bounce off something is simple in concept, the implementation can get incredibly complex. While the first radar systems just showed the operator every echo, there are lots of things which reflect radio waves, and most of them are not of particular military interest. Even during WWII, the steps were taken to clear things like chaff and wave returns off the displays, and a system like Aegis uses a whole host of techniques and algorithms in an attempt to separate out real targets from the mass of noise. This is a particular problem over water, as the atmospheric conditions are often unstable, a phenomenon known as anomalous propagation. These algorithms don't always work (early versions of Aegis sometimes mistook cars for light aircraft) but on the whole, they do a pretty good job.

The second piece of the puzzle is a new anti-stealth technique that CEC introduced. Stealth works by deflecting the incoming radar energy away from the receiver instead of sending it back, but no design can be 100% effective at this, and there are usually a few spikes in an aircraft's radar cross section. As a result, a radar will occasionally get a much stronger return, but the aircraft then turns and the signal fades away again, although some return will remain. This offers radar engineers an obvious way to gain some capability against stealth targets by lowering the detection threshold for the area near one of those spikes, although the algorithm would have to be carefully tuned to make sure it didn't interpret random returns as stealth aircraft.

CEC takes this to the next level. Instead of relying on one platform getting a stronger return and holding the target, it can integrate returns across multiple platforms, each of which might only have a brief glimpse of the target. If it works, this would be extremely useful, but the pitfalls are obvious. If one radar picks up a random return and the computer decides it might be a stealth aircraft, then the whole network will swing into action and start looking for something that isn't there. If the thresholds are set wrong, then it's likely to find something in the noise. Something, for instance, that starts at 60,000', then instantly jumps down to sea level as a wave sneaks through the filter. Then it could take off on a wild course that no aircraft could match as various platforms zero in on the strongest piece of noise they can see.1 The watching crews, who can only see what the computer thinks is there, assume that it's a real contact, and the story gets out about a UFO.2

Obviously, this is exactly what I think happened in 2004, and when the CEC engineers got the data from the test back, they adjusted their algorithms and fixed the problem. In terms of systems development, it wasn't even a failure. Fine-tuning the system to have the best chance of detecting stealth aircraft without seeing ghosts isn't something that can be done entirely within a lab, and there have been no more such reports of UFOs showing up on radar. The Navy, presumably expecting that most people would read the events as some sort of failure on CEC's part, didn't explain what had happened to the public, and let the matter die off.

Ah, but what about the aircraft that had encounters they couldn't explain? At this point, the human instinct for pattern-matching took over. I'm sure talk of the "UFOs" was all over the task force, priming the pilots to see weird things. The "boiling sea" is easy to explain as seabirds feeding on fish, while the other cases were likely clouds or other atmospheric phenomena. In at least one case, a Super Hornet's radar was unable to find something the cruiser Princeton was picking up, a strong sign of a spurious radar contact. As for the Tic-Tac itself, who knows. There are lots of weird atmospheric phenomena, and once we've explained everything else, and know that the reports were made by people primed to see strange things, there's really not much left to talk about.

So why did this all come to light a year ago? That, I'm less sure about. It's certainly not unknown for large public organizations to take advantage of the popular zeitgeist for their own purposes (most notably the CDC's Zombie Preparedness campaign) and it's quite possible that the Navy figured that sailors were more likely to report a UFO than a sensor glitch. Beyond that, there may be some new high-altitude Russian/Chinese drone that is invading military airspace, but is often dismissed because it's outside normal parameters. In either case, the 2004 incident is poor evidence for the existence of UFO of any sort.


1 As an engineer, the reported performance of the "contacts" is also strongly suggestive of a glitch. Something moving in the way described would have to be operating essentially outside the laws of physics as we know them. This isn't just "oh, we couldn't do that yet", but actual impossibility. The idea of a black program managing to not only discover something that has evaded the entire public physics community but also turn it into actual tech is bizarre beyond belief, while actual aliens are still likely to have to deal with concepts like inertia.

2 The danger of a supposedly certain situation display misleading the operators has been illustrated more tragically in the cases of the Vincennes and the Stark.

Comments

  1. May 10, 2020Suvorov said...

    I'd buy the "CEC ghost radar contacts" theory pretty quickly if it was just limited to basic radar glitchy-stuff – I think this sort of thing has been documented causing "UFO cases" going back to the 1950s.

    But I don't think "weird atmospheric phenomena" explains the sightings or FLIR videos, or the jamming the Super Hornets encountered. (I've even read about hypothetical systems that could supposedly cause the exact sort of physics-defying radar contacts the CEC experienced – the science is a bit beyond me, but it's not "something that has evaded the entire public physics community," it's a laser-pointer-across-the-moon sort of effect, IIRC.)

    During the Cold War, we probed Soviet air defenses in Cuba by using deceptive jamming on their tracking radar and releasing airborne balloons to engage with their targeting radar. Cuban pilots on an intercept mission would have returned with a story almost exactly like the Nimitz pilots. It seems very likely to me we're seeing something similar here.

  2. May 10, 2020bean said...

    What jamming? The report I linked didn't mention anything about that, and I didn't go looking much further. I think a lot of the rest can be explained by the tendency of people to pattern-match. A really weird cloud glimpsed by a busy pilot is written off in normal circumstances, but when the whole task group is buzzing about the UFOs picked up by the radars? Not so much.

  3. May 10, 2020Suvorov said...

    What jamming?

    Commander Fravor experienced jamming when he attempted to put an STT lock on the "Tic-Tac" in 2004. Fravor also got eyeballs on the "Tic-Tac," so I think it's safe to say that something beyond merely "pattern-matching" weird radar contacts is going on in his story. (You'll note this story was published in 2015, before the NYT picked this up and made it into a big deal.)

    Here's where I read the story, although I think there's a few different versions floating around out there: https://sofrep.com/fightersweep/x-files-edition/

    I didn’t go looking much further.

    That's too bad! It's a fascinating rabbit hole to go down.

  4. May 10, 2020bean said...

    That report isn't doing much to fill me with confidence. First, none of the radars on the planes are actually seeing the target. Again, this fits my theory perfectly and is really hard to reconcile with there actually being something there. The frothing patch of water fits perfectly with a shoal of fish being devoured by birds and/or fish. So from the first flight, we just have the tic-tac, and that could be birds, or a weird cloud. Certainly not enough to hang this all on.

    As for the jamming on the second flight, I'd want corroboration from someone else, because that should have been really obvious to other people. I could easily see "contact is hard to lock up" being interpreted as "being jammed", and that would be true, were the contact real. But if the contact isn't real, then it's just chasing spurious echoes, and those are obviously hard to lock onto. As for the FLIR video, I know how powerful those systems are, and the video is of a spot. Again, if not for the radar tracks from the ships, we're into "some aircrew saw some weird stuff", which isn't really news.

  5. May 10, 2020Suvorov said...

    First, none of the radars on the planes are actually seeing the target.

    That's not true of the second encounter:

    "The WSO first picked up a contact on the radar around 30nm away while it was operating in the RWS scan mode. He checked the coordinates and it was indeed hovering at their precise CAP point...In the less precise scan mode, the return indicated that the object was, in the WSO’s words, “A few thousand feet below us. Around 15-20K– but hovering stationary.”

    I could easily see “contact is hard to lock up” being interpreted as “being jammed”, and that would be true, were the contact real.

    He didn't just have a hard time locking it up, he experienced specific indicators of jamming:

    "He attempted several STT locks, to no avail. Later, in the debrief, he explained that he had multiple telltale cues of EA. The target aspect on the track file was turning through 360 degrees along with some other distinct jamming indications."

    If naval crewmen are so incompetent at interpreting their equipment, then I don't even see the need to suppose an issue with the CEC – one might suggest that they misinterpreted the contacts as well, even though the CEC was working as intended.

    So from the first flight, we just have the tic-tac, and that could be birds, or a weird cloud.

    "They described it as uniformly white, about 46 feet long (roughly fighter-sized), having a discernible midline horizontal axis (like a fuselage) but having no visible windows, nacelles, wings or propulsion systems. As Dave was pulling for nose-on and trying to get a dogfight lock with his radar, the AAV tightened its turn, “lift vector on, then aft” as Dave described, passed behind his tail and accelerated away at multi-Mach speed."

    This isn't "birds, or a weird cloud." "The Navy is full of a bunch of liars" is a much better explanation, and if that's what you think, there's no reason not to say it : )

    Again, this fits my theory perfectly and is really hard to reconcile with there actually being something there.

    I'd submit that the theory that the Navy was testing an early version of the NEMESIS drone/EW program is a much more straightforward for the facts as reported – inasmuch as it doesn't require Navy crewmen holding the "idiot ball" – especially considering that there's Cold War precedent for an almost identical sort of operation being carried out. (In one of the released videos, you can even hear one of the aircrew say "it's a drone!") Past sightings of "UFOs" were very probably secret military projects (e.g. F-117), and my guess would be that this is at least in part due to something similar.

  6. May 11, 2020bean said...

    He attempted several STT locks, to no avail. Later, in the debrief, he explained that he had multiple telltale cues of EA. The target aspect on the track file was turning through 360 degrees along with some other distinct jamming indications.

    That particular "jamming indicator" strikes me as less an indicator of "you are being jammed" and more an indicator of "extremely poor SNR". (Specifically, if the radar is having a hard time pinning down where the target is, then it's going to be jumping around, changing which way it thinks the target is headed.) Poor SNR is characteristic of both jamming and the radar being tortured into picking up something that isn't there. Remember, the military trains people in practice, not in theory. They're going to hand the trainee aircrew a book that says "these are the signs of jamming", without going too much into the logic behind why they're signs of jamming and what else they might mean.

    This isn’t “birds, or a weird cloud.” “The Navy is full of a bunch of liars” is a much better explanation, and if that’s what you think, there’s no reason not to say it : )

    First, eyewitnesses are terrible in general. People see what they're looking for. So a pilot who is expecting a weird plane might well see flock of birds as a plane. When the flock disperses after a high-speed pass from a Super Hornet, the pilot sees it as the plane flying away.

    Second, it's that the sort of people who fly combat aircraft tend to be a bit special. I've worked quite closely with some, and they're very good at what they do, but their perspective is very different from what you'd expect on the outside. And yeah, this definitely makes me more likely to say "that's just pilots for you".

    The NEMESIS test is a good theory, but this took place in 2004, and that's a few years too early. That kind of swarm tech has gone from "a few people talking about it at DARPA" to "in operation" in that time. You don't do early tests of that sort of thing off SoCal against operational units.

  7. May 11, 2020Doctorpat said...

    I'm happy to believe in UFOs providing people remember what the acronym actually stands for.

  8. May 11, 2020Suvorov said...

    First, eyewitnesses are terrible in general. People see what they’re looking for. So a pilot who is expecting a weird plane might well see flock of birds as a plane. When the flock disperses after a high-speed pass from a Super Hornet, the pilot sees it as the plane flying away.

    Sure, 1) but this applies to radar operators as well (case in point, the Vincennes shoot down.) If you're going to guess it's confabulation, you might as well assume the radar operators are confabulating. If we take the operator's accounts somewhat seriously, we should take them seriously. On the other hand, if you have radar tracks from aircraft and ships, FLIR footage, and multiple eyeballs on something, you're probably looking at...something, not nothing. And 2) I don't think the "people see what they want to see" thing stretches nearly as far as you're selling it as a general rule – it doesn't often jump to literal hallucination; that's unusual. If you pursue that line of thinking too far it becomes hard to argue against crackpots who say stuff like "Abraham Lincoln shot himself, Stalin didn't actually die, we only have eyewitness testimony, which is very unreliable," etc. Even taking this particular genre of case – it seems like a mistake to assume by default that someone seeing an unusual airframe is mistaken. Certainly some people who have seen unusual airframes are mistaken – but not all of them! Most people have mistaken observations, but most observations are not mistaken.

    Second, it’s that the sort of people who fly combat aircraft tend to be a bit special. I’ve worked quite closely with some, and they’re very good at what they do, but their perspective is very different from what you’d expect on the outside. And yeah, this definitely makes me more likely to say “that’s just pilots for you”.

    I've been around combat pilots my entire life. They're certainly "special," but I've never seen anything suggesting they're unusually prone to group hallucinations. More likely, IMHO, they're lying – given the level of detail they alleged to have seen. That seems unlikely in this particular case, given the corroboration. But a better theory.

    The NEMESIS test is a good theory, but this took place in 2004, and that’s a few years too early. That kind of swarm tech has gone from “a few people talking about it at DARPA” to “in operation” in that time.

    There's nothing in the 2004 account to suggest a drone swarm. It seems more likely some sort of signature "generation" capability (could be mundane jamming I guess; the more exotic methods I've heard rumors of were supposedly being tested in the 1980s, plenty of time to mature) combined with a visual decoy for when fighters arrive on target. (Basically the exact same setup we ran against the Cubans back in the day.)

    I'm pretty sure the War Zone people think that the pilots were seeing some sort of test capability – for example, they pulled up an airborne radar reflector that matches one description of the "UFOs" being sighted by the pilots. It seems to me that if pilots report seeing something that looks like an airborne radar reflector, it's more likely that it's an airborne radar reflector than that it's a flock of birds.

    IIRC, one of the more recent pilot's tapes (there's three, I think one from 2004 and then two from 2015) suggests there is a drone swarm. (Note that the weird stuff was still allegedly going on in 2015.)

    You don’t do early tests of that sort of thing off SoCal against operational units.

    Hey, maybe it's not us that's running the testing. But if it was a [known] Russian or Chinese aircraft, I think the Navy would, on balance, call them on it (they usually post the tapes of bad conduct by foreign powers.) Likewise, the military hasn't been at all shy about downplaying "UFO" sightings (if they aren't outright encouraging "UFO" mania to cover for their black programs – which, to clarify what I said above, I don't think account for every single alleged UFO incident, but certainly some of them in the past) – so I don't think they'd hesitate to say that the stuff the pilots saw was "misidentified" rather than "unknown" if they thought that was the case.

    One more thing, regarding why this came to light a year ago specifically. The (simplified) reason it did, as I recall, is in part because a Navy guy left the Pentagon (where he worked in an office that might or might not have dealt with UFOs) and told his story about UFOs to the New York Times. It seems like this guy is might make something of a career out of UFOs now (pushing the aliens line of thinking, I think.) I'm pretty suspicious of the whole way the thing blew up, but as I mentioned before, the 2004 sighting had been documented well before it got that fishy front-page attention.

  9. May 11, 2020bean said...

    On the other hand, if you have radar tracks from aircraft and ships, FLIR footage, and multiple eyeballs on something, you’re probably looking at...something, not nothing.

    We never have all of those things at the same point, AIUI. The first flight stands out most strongly. The Hawkeye and the Hornets get no locks at all, even after Princeton tells them "we can't tell the difference between where you are and where it is". Then the Hornet pilots look around and see a thing a ways away. (Note that from the account you linked, they were several miles away until very late in the game.) Yes, I don't know what the white thing was, but Princeton got another radar contact later on, and there was no visual indication of it. Again, radar with no visual? Spurious, particularly when we have extra reason to believe the radar was having trouble.

    The second time around, we have nothing from the ships, an arguable radar contact from one hornet that I suspect was the WSO torturing his radar to make it show things, and the FLIR video. There's no mention of the second hornet in that section at all. If there was jamming, it would have been very obvious, and somebody else would have noticed it.

    As for the later sightings, I'll absolutely accept those as reflector balloons. But there's 10 years and a continent separating those from the incident here.

    the more exotic methods I’ve heard rumors of were supposedly being tested in the 1980s, plenty of time to mature

    That's assuming they existed in the first place. The Reagan administration ran a disinformation campaign against the Soviets that spent a lot of time creating black programs with ridiculous performance claims in the hopes that the Soviets would spend a bunch of money trying to duplicate them. It worked, and played a significant role in the Soviet's eventual bankruptcy.

  10. May 11, 2020Suvorov said...

    Again, radar with no visual?

    Isn't that just textbook deceptive jamming, of the kind we've been running since the very early Cold War?

    Spurious, particularly when we have extra reason to believe the radar was having trouble.

    Agree that the "radar having trouble" theory is a good one, but I'm still having trouble swallowing that it would affect the pilots and the FLIR ;)

    There’s no mention of the second hornet in that section at all. If there was jamming, it would have been very obvious, and somebody else would have noticed it.

    This actually makes me really curious. This might be a subject for a whole 'nother post, but my understanding is that modern digital jamming can be extremely selective about what frequencies it is broadcasting on. I wouldn't expect the Hornets to be on exactly the same wavelength (so to speak!) because I assume their radars are using some sort of LPI frequency-hopping technology, and we don't know if the other Hornet tried STT or not. So why'd we expect the jamming to be obvious?

    As for the later sightings, I’ll absolutely accept those as reflector balloons. But there’s 10 years and a continent separating those from the incident here.

    If you're willing to bite the reflector balloons oddity, why's an odd airframe a bridge too far?

    That’s assuming they existed in the first place. The Reagan administration ran a disinformation campaign against the Soviets that spent a lot of time creating black programs with ridiculous performance claims in the hopes that the Soviets would spend a bunch of money trying to duplicate them. It worked, and played a significant role in the Soviet’s eventual bankruptcy.

    Sure! (Maybe that's what's going on here.) But most of that stuff had to be plausible enough to get the Soviets to bite. (Although we had some people who thought the threat of Soviet psychics was plausible enough, so maybe that's a low bar...) When I hear about a program that might be capable of producing physics-defying radar contacts without an airframe (allegedly, IIRC, by ionizing the air w/ a particle beam – very "Star Wars,") and then I hear about said radar contacts with the exact same performance, I can be forgiven for making a connection, no?

  11. May 11, 2020bean said...

    Isn’t that just textbook deceptive jamming, of the kind we’ve been running since the very early Cold War?

    Possible, but unlikely. Deception jamming is very effective against older systems, but really hard against something like SPY-1.

    So why’d we expect the jamming to be obvious?

    Because LPI is really hard to jam, and there are other people listening. AIUI, unless whoever was doing the jamming had stolen the codes the Hornets were using for LPI (assuming those even exist), they'd have to blanket the whole spectrum the APG-73 covers. That's going to take a lot of power, and alert anyone with a good ESM system. There was a Hawkeye up, and they'd have definitely detected something like that.

    If you’re willing to bite the reflector balloons oddity, why’s an odd airframe a bridge too far?

    Because of how the airframe is said to have behaved. Hovering with no visible means of support? Instant accelerations? Those are both way more implausible than weird balloons.

    I'd be much more inclined to accept alternate theories (and the air ionization thing does sound interesting, if above my head in physics) if this hadn't been the first CEC test. There's a long history of this kind of stuff messing up early on, and when I throw that in, it's really hard to credit other stuff. I think of the Battle of the Blips, the time that a US missile warning radar set off an alarm because the moon rose in its field of view, of Aegis picking up cars in the mountains of Lebanon and of Vincennes (along with other, less dramatic reports of this kind of stuff). Against that background, "the system screwed up" gets an incredibly strong prior.

  12. May 11, 2020ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Can we assume the Navy has much more detailed data logged from these incidents? As in, the raw data from each individual sensor before noise removal/enhancement--at minimum before any software processing--and definitely before it all gets integrated into one picture, as well as exactly what data was visible when that integration happened?

    As someone who works with (non-military) software for a living, I would prioritize this pretty highly, especially while testing the system.

  13. May 11, 2020bean said...

    It's definitely safe to say that the Navy has a lot more data than we do. I obviously don't know exactly what that entails, although particularly on the ships I'd be very surprised if there wasn't a ton of logging going on for the CEC shakedown.

  14. May 11, 2020Suvorov said...

    AIUI, unless whoever was doing the jamming had stolen the codes the Hornets were using for LPI (assuming those even exist),

    I should note that it is a (possibly unwarranted?) inference on my part that LPI was being employed, but if there’s one group that would know how Hornet LPI systems work, I figure it’d be the ECM people whipping up stuff like NEMESIS.

    they’d have to blanket the whole spectrum the APG-73 covers.

    Hmm. I wouldn't think so — that sounds like old-fashioned brute force jamming, and I get the impression that modern jammers are much more svelte, although obviously the manufacturer specifications and such I’ve seen leave much to be desired. I think the issue with LPI would be figuring out which frequencies are hostile radar vs. which are ambient background clutter, and presumably if someone’s STT’d on you at relatively close range you’d have a good idea of which was which and only transmit in those very specific frequencies.

    That’s going to take a lot of power, and alert anyone with a good ESM system.

    If you’re only radiating on the frequencies the APG-73 is actively using, I don’t know that the ESM would necessarily distinguish the jammer emissions from the APG-73’s own reflections, unless you were specifically looking for it.

    Because of how the airframe is said to have behaved. Hovering with no visible means of support?

    Like a hot air balloon, or a rigid blimp, or (from the right angle) a Harrier or a helicopter?

    Instant accelerations? Those are both way more implausible than weird balloons.

    The USG has been toying with fringe physics for so long I wouldn’t even be surprised if they made something truly weird work out. But I don’t think you have to assume that’s the case here. It seems more likely that the pilots exaggerated/used imprecise language concerning the behavior of an anomalous object they observed than that they invented it. I’ll buy into your “people see what they want to see” to the extent of “we perceived it as going faster than it really was because we were primed to think that” much more readily than I would that they misidentified a flock of birds (which wouldn’t show up on TWS anyway, and doesn’t explain the FLIR video.)

    But setting that aside, stealth aircraft often don’t have readily visible intakes/engines. If you briefly glimpsed Have Blue in the late 1970s, you’d have a real head-scratcher on your hands. If you passed something like that in a merge, I could easily imagine looking over my shoulder and saying “it disappeared,” and inferring it was extremely fast, when in reality it’s just shaped weirdly, very thin, and hard to spot. I’m not even sure that “stealthy super-fast VTOL” is outside the theoretical capability portfolio of the DoD, since they almost certainly were/are kicking around high-speed and stealth VTOL programs. It seems to me that it's quite possible the explanation for the "X-Files" part of it might be more mundane than it sounds at first glance.

    Against that background, “the system screwed up” gets an incredibly strong prior.

    Sure, I get that. But I don’t think it adequately explains the “Tic-Tac” (or some of the later weirdness) even though it explains the strange CEC contacts in isolation pretty well. Radar issues (especially in carrier aircraft!) are pretty commonplace; if even 10% of them resulted in a “I merged with little green men” story then every fighter pilot would have three or four stories like Fravor’s.

    I don’t think that my explanation(s) are perfect mind you. If this isn’t just a series of coincidental goofs as you suggest and all this gets declassified in 50 years I bet I’m wrong in all sorts of ways. Who knows, maybe the Navy did finally build that anti-gravity drive! But I think the sort of suggestion I’m putting forth has better explanatory power – especially factoring in the FLIR video, the post-2004 wave of sightings, and the Navy’s weird behavior in handling this – than a mere CEC glitch that spiraled out of control. My .02.

    Can we assume the Navy has much more detailed data logged from these incidents?

    It's worth pointing out that one of the videos the Navy released turns out to have been itself downloaded from YouTube in 2007(!) I don't know about the data they logged from the CEC, but that suggests to me that they didn't bother to keep the raw FLIR tape and/or buried it in some sort of classified system someplace. My understanding is that fighters typically overwrite their recorded data pretty frequently, so it's probably not surprising that some of the data the Navy could seem to find had taken an, uh, circuitous route, but it is amusing.

  15. May 11, 2020bean said...

    I think the issue with LPI would be figuring out which frequencies are hostile radar vs. which are ambient background clutter, and presumably if someone’s STT’d on you at relatively close range you’d have a good idea of which was which and only transmit in those very specific frequencies.

    LPI is usually tied to spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping. Both of which are going to require you to either know exactly how the airplane's radar is working (I give it 50/50 that the US's best EW people could do this for one of our radars without having access to the keys) or pump out a bunch of power.

    If you’re only radiating on the frequencies the APG-73 is actively using, I don’t know that the ESM would necessarily distinguish the jammer emissions from the APG-73’s own reflections, unless you were specifically looking for it.

    You would need an incredibly sophisticated and subtle jammer to pull that off. The whole point of a jammer is that it comes from a direction the radar isn't looking.

    Like a hot air balloon, or a rigid blimp, or (from the right angle) a Harrier or a helicopter?

    The report you linked pretty much rules out the Harrier, and the LTA systems can't maneuver anything like the reports list. Nor can a helicopter.

    Flock of birds is my theory for the first incident, which never got radar contact, and we didn't get FLIR video for.

    Radar issues (especially in carrier aircraft!) are pretty commonplace; if even 10% of them resulted in a “I merged with little green men” story then every fighter pilot would have three or four stories like Fravor’s.

    This is more or less the crux of my theory, although it's probably lower than 10%. We're basically looking at priors. If your prior is "this is a normal day", then you're going to say "nope, nothing on the screen" instead of torturing the radar into finding something that isn't there.

  16. May 11, 2020Suvorov said...

    Both of which are going to require you to either know exactly how the airplane’s radar is working

    How an airplane's radar works isn't exactly a mystery! You can mix it up pretty thoroughly with LPI, but you can't overcome the basic physical limitations of what you're doing. You can jam a conventional radar by feeding an altered version of its signal back at it. If I change what my radar is doing VERY RAPIDLY, my jammer just needs to spit those scrambled signals back out (which, as I understand, is what DRFM is for.) That's an engineering/software design challenge for sure, but I don't think it's improbable by any means. You'd pretty much have to overcome it to use jammers* at all, and LPI radars have been used for decades – but jammers are still around.

    • I guess you could just jam the whole spectrum as you mention, but this gets you passive seekerheads up your transmitter every time. People are still investing millions of dollars in jamming systems, which strongly suggests they think LPI radars can be defeated.

    LPI is usually tied to spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping.

    Hmm.

    What's the obstacle to jamming those?

    I have some hands-on experience with amateur radio, and I'm pretty confident that it would be relatively trivial (not for me, mind you, but for some people!) to work up a repeater system for a spread-spectrum frequency-hopping transmitter if you knew the frequencies you needed to cover. The main problem, I think, would be ensuring that your equipment covered the entire spectrum you needed to interact with. I don't think that would be hard to do with a fighter radar; it's not exactly a secret the general area of the spectrum they operate in, and the portions of the spectrum that are usable are somewhat constrained, so by making a very educated guess you could have a jammer system that could operate throughout the general areas you expect them to cover. (Hence the attractiveness of using AESA radars as jammers, as I understand it.)

    The big issue here being that, unlike amateur radio messages, radar waves don't contain self-authenticating code announcing "this is a message." So you'd need to determine what's a hostile radar system and what's just background noise. I doubt that'd be hard against a fighter a few dozen kilometers out in the middle of the ocean; there's not going to be a lot of other "loud" radio sources operating in the tactical radar band. It'd be a lot harder, I think, in an actual conflict, with EW sources all over the place.

    (I give it 50/50 that the US’s best EW people could do this for one of our radars without having access to the keys)

    Maybe I'm reading too much into the Growler with Raptor kill markings but my guess is that's already been done.

    The whole point of a jammer is that it comes from a direction the radar isn’t looking.

    If you can get into the sidelobes that's a bonus, but it's not necessary in theory.

    The report you linked pretty much rules out the Harrier, and the LTA systems can’t maneuver anything like the reports list. Nor can a helicopter.

    Sure, I didn't mean to suggest that it was actually a Harrier or something. My point is just that an object hovering isn't itself particularly surprising. "Navy pilot encounters unusual airframe" =! "Navy pilot encounters aliens." We'd sort of expect unusual airframes to exist, and if anyone encountered them, we'd sort of expect it to be pilots.

    This is more or less the crux of my theory, although it’s probably lower than 10%.

    I've hardly done comprehensive polling, but the last time there were a lot of rumors related to US fighter aircraft and UFOs seems to have been during the 1950s/1960s when there were larger UFO flaps going on. There seems to have been a lull during the Cold War, with some notable exceptions, but it hardly seems like a common story among fighter pilots until the whole "Tic-Tac" thing blew up, and the Tic-Tac doesn't seem involved with a broader batch of sightings (although, to be fair, it is weirdly similar to a lot of earlier sightings. Curiously, Iran has had recent trouble with "UFOs" too. They seem real interested in their nuclear sites, as I recall.) All that to say, Fravor's story surprised me, because I didn't expect something like that coming out of today's Navy, and it seemed to surprise his contemporaries as well. But maybe your experience with pilots is more colorful than mine.

  17. May 12, 2020bean said...

    It's not that I don't think you could jam a modern radar. It's that I don't think you could do it without someone else noticing. The E-2 has a really good ESM system, and the ones on ships are not bad, either.

    As for the bump in stories lately, if anything I think that supports my case. If UFOs are a thing, people (and pilots) see UFOs. If UFOs are just something crazy people believe in, people don't see UFOs. In this case, they saw UFOs because they'd been primed by the tales of the weird radar contacts. And it goes back much further than the 50s, at least to the days before WWI when the British population saw hostile Zeppelins everywhere.

  18. May 12, 2020Suvorov said...

    It’s not that I don’t think you could jam a modern radar. It’s that I don’t think you could do it without someone else noticing. The E-2 has a really good ESM system, and the ones on ships are not bad, either.

    Interesting!

    I'm glad you mentioned this, because it made me curious, and I started doing a little poking around to see what the open-source stuff said about this. A fun rabbit hole to go down.

    As for the bump in stories lately, if anything I think that supports my case. If UFOs are a thing, people (and pilots) see UFOs. If UFOs are just something crazy people believe in, people don’t see UFOs. In this case, they saw UFOs because they’d been primed by the tales of the weird radar contacts.

    Sure – my point being, though, that as far as I can tell, this particular bump in stories among fighter pilots doesn't correspond with a nationwide bump in reports. Likewise, there doesn't seem to have been this many UFO stories related by fighter pilots over the past few decades, despite radar problems being more or less a constant. CEC's hardly the only new radar system we've rolled out.

    This doesn't prove anything, I guess, I just find it interesting.

    And it goes back much further than the 50s, at least to the days before WWI when the British population saw hostile Zeppelins everywhere.

    There were stories of strange airships in the USA in the 1800s too IIRC. But there was a major "flap" in and around the 1950s that, as my memory serves, seems to have prompted a spike in sightings across the board, including by pilots. I get the impression such things, as a general rule, tapered off considerably since then, but that's just a guess on my part; maybe Fravor's report is less unusual than I think.

  19. May 12, 2020bean said...

    Sorry it took me so long to clear up the confusion on jamming.

    Sure – my point being, though, that as far as I can tell, this particular bump in stories among fighter pilots doesn’t correspond with a nationwide bump in reports.

    I'm not sure there's any reason to assume that it should. I'll readily grant that there's probably more weird stuff flying around today than their was 20 years ago, and I'm completely ready to credit reports of stuff like the balloons on the East Coast. But there are two caveats. First, fighter pilot culture is somewhat disconnected from the broader culture, and it's very possible that their level of belief in UFOs is higher than that among the general public. Second, the claims made from the Tic-Tac incident go far beyond "weird balloons", and are also a decade earlier than those. So I'm inclined to look for other explanations, which come down to "new radar system generated false targets, combined with a weird day in the air".

    CEC’s hardly the only new radar system we’ve rolled out.

    CEC is peculiarly vulnerable to showing the kind of glitch I proposed in operational service, as opposed to on a test range.

    maybe Fravor’s report is less unusual than I think

    It's not so much that his report is less unusual as that I think the experience is less unusual, but it's reported differently in most cases. Normally, pilots aren't steered after a phantom radar contact by a controller who asks how many weapons they have. If they see a weird white thing over a patch of "boiling" sea far below, they file it under "huh, I wonder what that is" and if they mention it when they get back aboard, someone says "Oh, it's probably birds feeding on a school of fish. I saw it on Planet Earth." And it gets filed away under "not a mystery". Likewise, normally there's not somebody torturing the radar to find nonexistent contacts, because they have no reason to suspect that such contacts exist.

    (This last part is theoretically testable, if there are any fighter pilots reading this. Ask your wingman/WSO about a contact that isn't there, and see if they can find it.)

  20. May 12, 2020Suvorov said...

    Sorry it took me so long to clear up the confusion on jamming.

    It's all good – it'd hardly be jamming if it wasn't confusing, now, would it be?

    First, fighter pilot culture is somewhat disconnected from the broader culture, and it’s very possible that their level of belief in UFOs is higher than that among the general public.

    I think among the general public between 40% and 50% believe in UFOs piloted by ET. No idea if this would be higher or lower among pilots! On the one hand, I think a lot of the belief in ET (at least in the States) coincides with the idea that the "government" is covering it up, and I would guess fighter guys would be less likely to believe in that. On the other hand, even if it's significantly lower than the general populace, it's still really high.

    If they see a weird white thing over a patch of “boiling” sea far below, they file it under “huh, I wonder what that is” and if they mention it when they get back aboard, someone says “Oh, it’s probably birds feeding on a school of fish. I saw it on Planet Earth.” And it gets filed away under “not a mystery”.

    I've always gotten the impression Navy guys are pretty used to natural phenomena (I've seen things like FLIR tapes of whales surfacing, or heard about weird oddities like seeing masses of sea snakes in the Persian Gulf from the air, or St. Elmo's fire, or swarms of flying fish, etc.) I'd be pretty surprised if an experienced Navy pilot wasn't able to figure out/recognize birds feeding on fish. Demographically, too, Navy officers are probably more likely than the general populace to do upper-middle class outdoor stuff (hunting, fishing, boating, hiking) which makes me think they'd be less likely to mistake a natural phenomena for something else.

    But of course this doesn't necessarily apply to any specific case, and I think it's not infrequent for people (who you'd think might know better) to make mistakes even within their area of expertise. My general heuristic is that it's easy to mistake a mouse for a rat, but rarely a rat for a goat, and I have a hard time swallowing accounts that hinge on the latter. That's why I agree the pilots might have misinterpreted what they saw, but I doubt they misinterpreted it to the extent you think likely. But YMMV.

    Ask your wingman/WSO about a contact that isn’t there, and see if they can find it.

    I've heard this isn't really possible (along the lines of 'the radar either displays contacts or it doesn't'), but I haven't been able to quiz a Hornet flyer specifically on it. Any Hornet pilots reading this?

  21. May 12, 2020Suvorov said...

    like FLIR tapes of whales surfacing

    Actually – thinking a little harder on it – I'm not sure if I've actually seen FLIR tapes of whales or not. This is what I get for opining about the reliability of human observation...

  22. May 12, 2020bean said...

    I’ve heard this isn’t really possible (along the lines of ‘the radar either displays contacts or it doesn’t’), but I haven’t been able to quiz a Hornet flyer specifically on it. Any Hornet pilots reading this?

    Oh, yes. All modern radars us automatic video processing. But I'm equally sure there are settings you can play with, probably labeled as "anti-stealth/anti-jam" or something of that sort, which will cause the radar to change the boundary at which it decides to put things on the screen. And depending on conditions on the day and on how hard the WSO was trying, then it doesn't seem implausible that they could pick up a contact which wasn't there.

  23. May 12, 2020Suvorov said...

    But I’m equally sure there are settings you can play with, probably labeled as “anti-stealth/anti-jam” or something of that sort, which will cause the radar to change the boundary at which it decides to put things on the screen.

    That makes sense. I wonder how sensitive (in the classification sense – presumably in the technical sense, it's as sensitive as you turn the knob) that is. I got the impression that at parts of the article they might have been being circumspect (e.g. if you read how they talk about the jamming, they don't seem spell out all the indicators they had) and I guess the precise radar modes and techniques they used might be classified, assuming they can remember/have records of them.

    To circle back to something I mentioned briefly before, about ionizing radiation being used as a decoy – I just recently bumped into a couple of articles, one about the Navy's plan to mount lasers on submarines(!) and another about a 2018 Navy patent for a laser-induced plasma decoy system (aimed at IR decoys, but presumably one might create radar effects as well) The speculation, of course, is that such a system might explain the sightings. Taking the two together rather increases my prior that the Navy pilots might have been bumping into some sub-mounted decoy systems. Do you think the deployment timeline for such a system (tests in 2004/and or 2015, acknowledged procurement 2020?) fits?

  24. May 12, 2020bean said...

    I could buy 2015, but not 2004. If it's being tested where random passerbys (OK, in military jets, but still...) can see it, it's pretty close to deployment. 5 years? Absolutely. 15 years? I'd expect it to still be in the lab/on ranges where you have tight control over who sees it and how. One of the major problems I have with "secret system tests" for the Tic-Tac is that it doesn't match how they generally test those kind of systems. If it's in early development, then you keep it tightly locked away so the bad guys don't get a sniff. As it gets closer to service, you can bring it a bit more out of the shadows. Anything with these capabilities that was at the "bring it to the exercise off SoCal" stage in 2004 should be in reasonably wide service by now, and it's not.

  25. May 12, 2020Suvorov said...

    I could buy 2015, but not 2004.

    Interesting, thank you.

    One of the major problems I have with “secret system tests” for the Tic-Tac is that it doesn’t match how they generally test those kind of systems.

    I think there's at least some people out there who'd view "making people believe they saw a physics-defying UFO" as part of the potential capability of such a system, and "secret system tests" are the best way to make that happen.

    If it’s in early development, then you keep it tightly locked away so the bad guys don’t get a sniff.

    Yes, this definitely makes sense.

    As it gets closer to service, you can bring it a bit more out of the shadows.

    Is it that unlikely for potential "silver bullet" systems to go a very long time in the black world after they achieve IOC, though? The stealth Black Hawks were built in c. 2009 and we still hardly know a thing about them – and probably wouldn't if one of 'em hadn't crashed – but they were operational.

  26. May 12, 2020bean said...

    I think there’s at least some people out there who’d view “making people believe they saw a physics-defying UFO” as part of the potential capability of such a system, and “secret system tests” are the best way to make that happen.

    If the objective is to test if you can make someone think they saw a UFO, you'd have someone waiting onboard Nimitz to (a) debrief the pilots and (b) tell them that what they'd seen was classified, so they shouldn't talk about it. Getting the kind of coverage it has is really unlikely if the people running the program/test are at all competent.

    Is it that unlikely for potential “silver bullet” systems to go a very long time in the black world after they achieve IOC, though?

    Maybe. Depends on what you're trying to do with them, I guess. The stealth Black Hawks are a good point, although even then, it's not the concept so much as the execution that's being kept secret. The closest I can think of is the plan for the B-2, which didn't really work and even then, it still makes the program a headache to this day.

  27. May 13, 2020ec429 said...

    I have some hands-on experience with amateur radio, and I’m pretty confident that it would be relatively trivial (not for me, mind you, but for some people!) to work up a repeater system for a spread-spectrum frequency-hopping transmitter if you knew the frequencies you needed to cover. One problem/limitation of this is that you can't make the contact appear closer to the radar than the jammer is, which I believe you could do with a non-frequency-hopping constant-PRR radar, or if you knew the spread-spectrum radar's chip codes. Idk if that's remotely relevant to the discussion, though.

  28. May 28, 2020Blackshoe said...

    Slight necro, but wanted to note that the Center for Naval Analysis had some podcasts last year discussing how the military dealt with UFOs back in the 40s that I thought were interesting in that they focused on the actions of just the DoD and ignored the UFOs themselves, for the most part. Eps 3 and 8, if you're into that sort of thing.

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