According to Agents Mulder and Scully, the truth is out there. Or maybe it's in here somewhere, lurking in a secret, mysterious MOD bunker. Since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act last year, there have been plenty who have been asking awkward questions.
Speaking about the MOD's 'UFO Project' Linda Unwin, the Desk Officer in Directorate of Air Staff (DAS) responsible for dealing with enquiries about UFOs and for implementing Freedom of Information within DAS, said:
"The first point to make is that there is no 'UFO Project'. Handling of UFO sightings is a very small element of our work."
So why should a fairly conservative government department be interested in such things?
"I’ll let you into a little secret… generally, we’re not!
"The policy is quite simple: we only look at these reports to establish whether there might be anything of defence significance, such as an unauthorised or hostile aircraft in UK airspace."
Since the late 1940s an increasing number of people claimed that they had seen unidentifiable objects in Britain’s skies. At the suggestion of Sir Henry Tizard the aptly named "Flying Saucer Working Party” was formed in 1950, and it presented its report in June 1951. The Working Party concluded that “…no progress will be made by attempting further investigation of uncoordinated and subjective evidence…" and recommended that "…no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken unless and until some material evidence becomes available."
The Working Party was dissolved, but its report can be accessed on the web.
Nevertheless, reported sightings kept coming in, so a secretariat was set up to see if they contained anything relevant to air defence. Since then, nothing of interest has emerged.
Linda's colleague, Julie Monk, said that the number of sightings reported each year varies enormously.
"Although at present we are getting about 100 reports a year, in the late 90's there were on average more than double that. Of course, it fluctuates - public interest can increase after, say, a blockbuster film.
"When Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released, the number of sightings reported to MOD increased by more than 100 per cent and it was the same when Independence Day was released. War of the Worlds last year, though, had no effect. Perhaps it's a new way of judging how good the films are!"
So how does the MOD handle reports of UFO sightings? Julie explained that contrary to popular and press belief, UFO sightings are not routinely 'investigated'.
"The vast majority of the reports are far too vague to make even the most basic enquiries, but there might be a handful each year – say where a lot of people have reported something – which are referred to Air Defence specialists.
"MOD does not provide an identification service. Once we have established that there is no defence significance we do nothing more. It would not be a good use of taxpayers’ money."
Recognising the great public interest in the UFO phenomenon, the MOD takes a very open approach for which we have been commended by the Information Commissioner. But MOD’s openness on UFOs predates implementation of FOI on 1 Jan 2005. Linda said that:
"we have nothing to hide and wanted to put as much information in the public domain as possible and we were releasing a great deal of material under both the Code of Practice to Government Information and more generally into the MOD Publication Scheme. This complements the material already available for public viewing at The National Archives."
Linda and Julie continue to release as much information as they can.
"This work is ongoing and we are keen to continue releasing information into the public domain" explained Linda.
Just over 25 years ago, a case was reported which is regarded by ufologists as Britain’s “Roswell” – sightings that took place at Rendlesham Forest in 1980 when on 25th December, and early on 26th December strange lights were seen in the forest near to RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge – at the time USAF bases.
"When the MOD was informed of these events, all the available substantiated evidence would have been looked at in the usual manner by those responsible for air defence matters.
"There was no indication that a breach of UK air defences had occurred on the nights in question and no further investigation into the matter was deemed necessary. But the case continues to receive a lot of attention, both public and media."
In response to this interest all of the MOD papers were placed in the MOD Publication Scheme. Of course, this probably doesn’t satisfy those who are convinced that there are secret files containing all the unusual suspects.
Since the Freedom of Information Act became law on 1 January 2005, Linda and Julie have found the public appetite for information on the subject almost overwhelming:
"In 2005 we received around 150 requests for information from members of the public and the media who wanted to see what they think are 'the real X-files'. We answered them all, and have never withheld any information about UFO sightings.
"The public at large are very prone to believe in conspiracy theories – particularly where Government departments are involved. No matter how open we are, there are still people who believe that we are hiding something.
"Add the mystery of a subject shrouded in modern folklore, and the idea is irresistible to those with a penchant for such beliefs.
"But we think that if we continue with our open approach to the subject, over time people will realise that we are being accessible and honest with them, but we see no value to be gained by debating the issue in public."
Mankind has long held a belief that we may not be alone in the universe, and people continue to report sightings of UFOs almost every day.
"I am sure that those reporting sightings genuinely believe they have seen something unexplainable, but generally they are either naturally occurring phenomena or aircraft activity,” said Julie. Is the MOD hiding anything? Linda tells us that, although the MOD has no evidence of extraterrestrial activity “we keep an open mind on the subject – just don’t look in the bottom drawer!"
This article first appeared in Focus - the newspaper for people in defence.