Last week I posted news about the latest release of ‘UFO files’ from the British Ministry of Defence. In that post, I also embedded video of Dr David Clarke – a UFO researcher who has done a lot of work on getting these files released – discussing some of the cases. In regards to the “American fighter pilot who was ordered to shoot down a UFO over British airspace” in 1956 or 1957, Dr Clarke mentioned that one of three possibilities (along with a a ‘real’ UFO, or a Soviet aircraft) was that the case may be explained by “electronic warfare”. He goes on to mention in particular the Palladium program, a 1960s CIA secret project aimed at spoofing ‘phantom aircraft’ on radar. This explanation has gone on to feature in a number of media stories (understandable, given it’s in this AP story.
However, does the Palladium explanation hold water? UFO researcher Martin Shough commented about this on the UFO Updates mailing list, raising some fair arguments against it. Martin is one of the ‘real’ researchers in this field (as is David Clarke – they worked together on the recent Channel Islands UFO report), so his comments are worth reading (at the very least, it’s an interesting historical rundown on a secret project). I’ve reproduced some of the pertinent points below (with permission):
Dave Clarke’s statement is certainly true and the history [of Palladium] is well known, or should be. One serious problem with the idea in this case is the date. I looked into the CIA radar spoofing programme – called project Palladium – in as much detail as I could many years ago when we were in the last phase of re-researching the 1956 Lakenheath-Bentwaters case.
In 1962…a radar spoofing programme was developed to be operated in tandem with the agency’s bi-static Soviet radar mapping programme. This mapping programme had begun in 1959 with Project Melody and progressed to using radar echoes bounced from the moon. Having charted the Soviet radar fence in detail and found it unexpectedly forbidding, the CIA, and through them particularly Strategic Air Command, now needed to know how to make spyplanes or bombers with radar cross-sections small enough to squeeze through. This was the beginning of ‘stealth’, and the CIA’s radar spoofing was designed to provoke reactions from Soviet radars so that NSA COMINT intercept specialists could then decrypt their communications and estimate the minimum detectable cross-sections in various conditions. Wheelon dubbed this effort Project Palladium. You can read about Palladium here (PDF file) from the horse’s mouth
Given the value of Soviet radar defences to Strategic Air Command offensive planners, and the involvement of both CIA and NSA, one might suppose that if an early prototype test of a Palladium-type operation had ever been contemplated in Europe in 1956 then forward-basing of the equipment at a SAC airfield where CIA and NSA had already established a secure presence would be natural. RAF Lakenheath was a SAC bomber base where in May 1956 the CIA had chosen to deploy one of the first U-2s.
On the other hand I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt CIA history which says that Palladium per se was started under Bud Wheelon, who was DDS&T from 1962…. There is no indication that Palladium was continuous with a long series of similar prototype developments going back to 1956 or 1957. The existence of such an early forerunner – especially one developed enough to see use overseas in the UK – seems to me both technically and historically very doubtful, and I’m not aware of any parallel efforts by other agencies at that time. But it probably can’t be completely ruled out and it’s right to at least consider it.
Further arguments raised by researchers against the “electronic warfare” explanation include (a) why get the airman to fire at the target, if it was just a test of spoofing capabilities, (b) if live weapons were to be fired, it would probably have been done in the restricted airspace of a military range, and (c) would it have even been possible to do the radar spoofing in this particular case. On the last point, once again Martin gives some details:
Deceiving a fixed ground radar in a carefully arranged situation is one thing. Doing the same thing (simultaneously) on the AI radars of two F-86Ds flying changing vectors at 32,000ft over the North Sea at speeds up to Mach 0.92 is in quite a different league and strains credulity.
I frankly doubt this is practicable, even today.
So, the Palladium explanation seems unlikely. Guess we’re still stuck at ‘UFO’ though. My thanks to Martin Shough for allowing me to reprint his interesting and educational posts from UFO Updates.