• A new congressional report redefines UFOs as “unidentified aerospace-undersea phenomena” and updates how we sort them: man-made or ... not?
  • The changes reflect evolving language around defense across various domains.
  • The government likely considers Russia and China to be the real threats, though the report leaves things open to interpretation.

A recent Congressional document has revealed plans to divide unidentified flying objects (UFOs), or unexplained aerial phenomena (UAPs), into two groups: those that are understood to be human-made and those that are ... not. It also expands upon the scope of UFOs, which are no longer limited to just flying objects, by redefining them as “unidentified aerospace-undersea phenomena,” Vice reports.

The document is an addendum to the Intelligence Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2023. What’s that up in the sky? If it’s not a bird, a plane, or some other human-made object, it’s apparently destined for a new U.S. intelligence inbox.

Here’s what Vice summarizes from the document:

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Congress made two startling claims. The first is that “cross-domain transmedium threats to the United States national security are expanding exponentially.” The second is that it wants to distinguish between UFOs that are human in origin and those that are not: “Temporary nonattributed objects, or those that are positively identified as man-made after analysis, will be passed to appropriate offices and should not be considered under the definition as unidentified aerospace-undersea phenomena,” the document states.

What does all this jargon mean, though? One key word in the congressional report is “transmedium,” a term the Pentagon has recently adopted for its UFO group that has emanated out to other agencies. This refers to technology that would be able to travel through different media, literally: space, air, and water are all media in this context. NASA’s moon-landing program launchers would technically count as transmedium because they blast through Earth’s atmosphere and then travel through space.

But that example itself shows why transmedium technology is so, well, alien. We’ve only barely scratched the surface of how best to travel through the atmosphere and then adjust and travel efficiently through space. Amphibious vehicles here on Earth usually go from motor propulsion on land to motor propulsion on the surface of the water—not from air travel to submarine. Even in Star Trek, flagships avoid having to leave orbit and enter planetary atmospheres.

The other interesting term is “cross-domain” or, for the Pentagon, “all-domain.” “Domain” is defense shorthand for battlefield or, in the 21st century, the “battle space.” During WWII, you would have seen analysis of domains in Europe like mountains or coastline, and those in Asia, like rainforest or dense city environments. Then there were domains in other mediums, including naval warfare (surface and submarine) and air warfare.

You may have guessed where this is going. Today, many global conflicts aren’t even declared to be wars at all, let alone fought in these traditional ways along predictable lines. Domains now include cyberattacks and other technology-based strategic advantages—think Russian cybercrime or Facebook bots. And, as highlighted by the United States Space Force, our defense capabilities are headed for the stars.

This context helps explain what the new Intelligence Authorization Act addendum report is getting at. “Cross-domain transmedium threats” sounds like big talk until you realize that it’s likely language regarding U.S. suspicions of Russia and China. This is made explicit in documentation on the U.S. Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF), for example: “Congress has expressed concern about the threat to U.S. national security posed by Russia and China. The Army contends in order to address the threat, it must be able to operate in a multi-domain environment.”

The Pentagon’s recent renaming of its UFO group points in the same direction. The office was previously called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Group, and now it’s called the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office. You could argue that these changes coincide with renewed interest in UFOs, but the language itself doesn’t automatically suggest that. It’s just the latest concession to the idea that what threatens the United States, from outer space or otherwise, is definitely not limited to “airborne objects.”

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The other change reported by Vice is that the group will now divide suspected UFOs into two categories: those that are determined to be “man-made” and those that cannot be determined to be man-made. The language itself may be new or even suggestive, but the government has been publicly identifying plenty of suspected UFOs as human-made objects, like weather balloons, for over 70 years. In the report, this section is just saying the objects identified as human-made will be shifted out of the UFO office’s inbox and into someone else’s.

All this means the news, as far as UFOs go, may not be that shocking after all. But it is interesting that these offices are all catching up with the times: definitions “shall be updated to include space and undersea, and the scope of the Office shall be inclusive of those additional domains with focus on addressing technology surprise and ‘unknown unknowns.’” Here, “technology surprises” refers to sudden advances in applied science or technology, or the use of a known technology in a surprising way. Unknown unknowns are exactly what they sound like—things that the government isn’t even aware are at play yet.

The report does leave room for interpretation, but in a way, the threats represented by bogeymen from space are less scary than simply Russia and China flexing their technological and strategic muscle.