Leaked US Navy footage of a UAP (Image: Supplied)

Sometimes changes of acronyms reflect more than just bureaucratic nomenclature. Mystery aircraft, which have been seen since humans first took to the skies, are no longer UFOs. They’re UAPs — for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

A difference without a distinction, perhaps, but central to how it’s now legitimate to discuss what on earth, or beyond, flying objects, moving at incredible speed and in apparent defiance of basic laws of aerodynamics, actually are.

Three pieces of footage are central to the emergence of UAP as a legitimate topic of public debate — one from 2004 and two from 2015. All are by US Navy pilots, and were leaked online over the last 14 years.

Eventually, last year, the Pentagon released them officially. One shows a small tic-tac-like object moving at high speed over water. Another shows a more complex object travelling, rotating and pausing in mid-air. The third could be a more conventional flying saucer-type object, though could really be anything. And this month, two more Navy videos were leaked.

As a result of a Trump-era add-on to a pandemic stimulus bill, a “detailed analysis” of UAPs by the Office of Naval Intelligence and the FBI is also due with Congress in June. The countdown is on for UFOlogists.

The isn’t the first time Congress has expressed interest in these things. In 2017, it emerged that former Senate majority leader Harry Reid had driven a secret US$22 million program to investigate UAPs and in particular the 2004 footage — one which involved money for defence contractors and friends of Reid, so was indistinguishable from the usual Congressional pork-barrelling. Reid this month claimed that he was told Lockheed Martin had materials from a crashed UAP, but couldn’t confirm it himself. Reid has also suggested the UAPs were not extra-terrestrial in origin but might be Russian.

There is plenty of scepticism about the US Navy footage, and explanations that they are in fact optical illusions. That’s countered by pilots themselves, who speak of seeing UAP routinely while flying, and of being reluctant to report them because of stigma. More senior figures also talk about them. Former senior Pentagon official Christopher Mellon has described a “massive intelligence failure” that unidentified aircraft operate within US airspace.

Now Barack Obama has confirmed that there are objects “that we don’t exactly know what they are” (presumably Barack Obama still has an alien lizard man on his security detail).

If not misinterpreted ordinary aerial phenomena or optical illusions, the most likely explanations are decidedly this-worldly — secret aircraft developed by the United States itself, or by other powers. As critics of Reid pointed out, UAPs could be a new front to hype the threat to US defence interests, and thus stimulate further taxpayer funding of defence contractors.

That’s the most banal conspiracy theory in the rich tapestry of cabals, plots and deceptions that make up the world of UFOlogy. Theories abound both as to their origin — outer space, a hollow earth, various underwater bases (Bass Strait being one), other dimensions — and the willingness of governments, and especially the US government, to cover up their existence, exploit recovered alien technology and neutralise those who might reveal that They Have Already Landed/They Walk Among Us etc.

In fact the existence of UFO conspiracy theories has generated other conspiracy theories: the US UFO conspiracy theorist Bill Cooper, after becoming discredited within UFOlogist circles for using fake documents, then promoted a conspiracy theory that UFO phenomena were being faked by an elite cabal to convince people of an imminent alien invasion, necessitating the establishment of a global communist government. UFO researchers were thus either dupes of this plot, or active participants in it.

Problematically, there are claims by a participant of an actual US Air Force effort to use hoax UFO materials to discredit a UFO researcher who had accidentally observed USAF experimental aircraft. Allegedly.

The military-industrial complex and conspiracy theorists make for a potent mix, especially in our new Trumpian era of conspiracies run amok. That’s before you add the Russians or the Chinese — let along beings from other worlds. Quite why the latter would want to visit us is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.