The Navy has a perplexing mystery on its hands. For several weeks in 2019, unknown objects stalked U.S. warships off the coast of southern California. While the bizarre “drone” encounters remain unsolved, the incidents occurred in an area with a long history of UFO sightings, including two of the most credible encounters on record.
According to documents reviewed by The Drive, the first reports of unidentified objects hovering and flying near Navy vessels sparked a sweeping, high-level investigation. The Navy, working with the FBI and Coast Guard, now appears to have ruled out civilian activity or U.S. military operations as plausible explanations for the encounters. This leaves two possibilities, each with extraordinary implications.
Either a foreign adversary is spying on Navy ships around the Channel Islands (which lie just west of Los Angeles and San Diego), or devices of truly unknown origin are operating with impunity around U.S. (and allied) vessels.
The implications of a foreign power deploying drones to spy on American warships just off the California coast are immense. For starters, this scenario suggests a monumental U.S. counterintelligence failure.
Moreover, such a brazen and technically complex intelligence operation amounts to an enormous gamble for a hostile nation. Any shoot-down – as the Navy reportedly attempted – of a foreign surveillance drone so close to U.S. shores would invite sweeping geopolitical repercussions.
Importantly, if the UFOs that stalked the Navy warships were part of an adversarial intelligence collection effort, the objects’ operators made little effort to conceal their presence. Videos taken aboard one U.S. vessel show the mysterious craft displaying bright and flashing lights. At the same time, Navy radar operators tracked the objects with apparent ease, even expressing surprise as the craft engaged in anomalous maneuvers. In another video, a spherical object (which has noteworthy parallels to UFOs observed by fighter pilots off the U.S. east coast) appears to descend slowly into the ocean.
To be sure, investigators and intelligence analysts must take seriously the possibility that a foreign power is spying on U.S. warships a stone’s throw from two major American cities. But based on what is known publicly about these bizarre incidents, investigators should also consider the long history of UFO sightings around the Channel Islands. Decades of anecdotal reports are bolstered by two of the most credible encounters on record.
In a notable 2004 incident, air controllers aboard a Navy guided missile cruiser watched as mysterious radar tracks suddenly appeared around San Clemente Island.
The radar operators grew increasingly uneasy as the UFOs moved south at bizarrely slow speeds. With U.S. planes slated to conduct an air defense exercise in the same area as the unknown objects, controllers directed two F/A-18 fighter jets to investigate the nearest radar contact.
As the jets approached, all four aviators aboard the two-seat fighters observed a “Tic Tac”-shaped craft hovering and moving in extraordinary ways just above the surface of the ocean. The object, which had no discernible engines, rotors, wings or other control surfaces, then mirrored the maneuvers of the lead fighter jet before accelerating instantaneously out of sight.
After descending tens of thousands of feet in less than a second, the object reappeared on radar 60 miles away, implying unimaginably fast velocities and g-forces. Most perplexingly, the UFO appeared at a pre-determined rendezvous point known only to the aircrew and radar operators.
U.S. intelligence analyses ruled out highly advanced Chinese or Russian aircraft as plausible explanations for the bizarre encounter. For their part, the four aviators who observed the object believe that it was “not from this world.”
A half century earlier, one of the most talented and prolific aeronautical engineers in history observed a UFO over the Channel Islands. His account is corroborated by four of America’s most experienced test pilots and aerospace engineers.
Among many noteworthy contributions to American aviation, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson designed the legendary U-2 and SR-71 spy planes as the first head of Lockheed Martin’s famed “Skunk Works” division. On Dec. 16, 1953, Johnson and his wife watched as a UFO with no apparent control surfaces or engines hovered for several minutes in the vicinity of Santa Cruz Island. The object then accelerated rapidly out of sight.
Unknown to Johnson, a Lockheed flight test crew, which included the company’s chief aerodynamics engineer, chief flight test engineer and two highly experienced test pilots, observed the same object while flying northwest along the Los Angeles coastline.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson and the flight crew’s descriptions of the incident are meticulously detailed. Most importantly, Lockheed’s engineers and pilots explicitly ruled out a cloud formation as a plausible explanation for the incident.
Nonetheless, the Air Force, freshly charged with discrediting and “debunking” all UFO sightings, concluded that five of America’s most credible observers were fooled by a small cloud.
Largely unknown in aviation history, Johnson was a firm believer in the existence of “flying saucers.” In a letter informing the Air Force of the Channel Islands encounter (and another UFO sighting two years earlier), Johnson writes that the incidents left him “more firmly convinced than ever that such devices exist.” According to Johnson, the 1953 encounter helped him win “some highly technical converts in this belief.”
Importantly, the Lockheed engineers’ and pilots’ descriptions of the December 1953 incident refer to another credible sighting over the Channel Islands. In 1951, one of the company’s top test pilots, Roy Wimmer, “sighted some lights over Catalina [Island]” that reportedly “stood still for a while and moved around” before disappearing. The parallels to the movement of the “drones” that recently followed U.S. warships are noteworthy.
A decade after the Lockheed encounters of the 1950s, a Navy photographer captured video of a UFO moving slowly over Catalina Island. Digitally enhanced footage shows that the object appears to lack control surfaces or obvious means of propulsion, bearing an intriguing resemblance to the strange craft observed by naval aviators in 2004.
Now, with Congress forcing the government to take the UFO phenomenon seriously for the first time, investigators must consider whether the objects that followed Navy warships are linked to the long history of inexplicable – yet highly credible – encounters in the waters off southern California.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.