The two greatest incentives for technological progress are war and monetary gain. Since the beginning of the 20th century technology has increased in dramatic leaps almost always for these reasons, which are even more powerful when combined. After World War II, which ended with the dramatic images of German V-2 rockets crashing down on London, of jet planes roaring across the skies, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the rate of technological progress seemed breathtaking. What new wonders were waiting to be discovered in the ruins of Nazi Germany or the secret labs of Uncle Sam?
Wonders enough, as it turned out. But even as humanity shifted from fear of fascism to fear of nuclear holocaust, strange objects began to fill the skies. Called flying saucers (regardless of their reported shape), these objects seemed to defy the known laws of flight as they zipped and soared through the air. Propeller-driven planes couldn't begin to catch them, and early jets were too short-ranged and mechanically unreliable. So what were these unidentified objects?
Where There's Foo, There's Fire
Military authorities immediately considered that UFOs might be experimental devices from some other nation. During the great air raids over Germany in 1944 and '45, American and British fliers sometimes saw brightly glowing balls that tailed their formations. These were dubbed 'foo fighters,' typical military slang of the era which probably derived from a catch phrase in the old "Smokey Stover" comic strip: "Where there's foo, there's fire." Foo fighters were puzzling, but it soon became apparent they weren't overtly dangerous. No Allied planes were ever attacked by foo fighters, and air intelligence officers concluded they were some kind of tracking devices controlled by the Germans from the ground (foo fighters were too small to contain a human-sized pilot). Following the war, the Allies thoroughly plundered German research centers, carrying off trainloads of documents, prototypes, and the scientists responsible for creating the startling variety of new weapons the Germans fielded in the last years of the war. Oddly enough, no evidence was turned up on the foo fighters. The Germans were as puzzled by them as the Allies; indeed, they assumed the foo fighters were Allied secret weapons!
Britain and the United States got lion's share of Germany's scientific booty, but the Russians took some prizes as well. By 1947, it was clear the Soviets were working on their own atomic bomb. Jet and rocket powered planes were displayed at aviation shows to intimidate the West. Even more dangerous projects -- like Eugen Sanger's Antipodal Bomber -- were being studied avidly in the Soviet Union. Thus when mysterious objects appeared over Scandinavia in 1946, it was widely assumed in the West that these were German V-weapons being tested by the Soviets. A year later the first flying saucer reports began in the U.S., concentrated in the Northwest. Saucer-mania gripped the country already overwrought with incipient McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia. Were UFOs Soviet secret weapons? Could the Reds penetrate North American airspace at will with vastly superior aircraft?
The Pentagon took this concept very seriously. The earliest UFO studies by the Air Force focused on the possibility that flying saucers were enemy secret weapons, which is why so many early UFO reports and analyses were classified Top Secret. By 1948 however, it was clear that the reported performance of UFOs exceeded anything originating on Earth. The extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) gained ground, even among the military, but the secret weapon theory (SWT) never fully died. By the 1980s, it would revive with unexpected verve as stories of crashed saucers and alien technology spread.
The Area 51 Flap
Reports began to pile up of unusual looking aircraft flying over the desert region of Nevada and California. Edwards Air Force Base, on Muroc Dry Lake in California, has long been a major center of American experimental aircraft. Attention began to focus on an otherwise obscure base, Nellis, near Groom Lake, Nevada. People near Nellis saw strange craft by day over the base, and unidentified lights by night. Rumors proliferated that the Air Force was testing highly advanced aircraft using alien technology obtained from UFO crashes in New Mexico as far back as 1947; alternately, the government was reputed to have made a deal with extraterrestrials in which we allowed them to pursue their own (sinister) researches on Earth in exchange for tidbits of their advanced technology.
In the early 1980s a toy company that makes aircraft models, Testor's Inc., came out with a model of what was called a "stealth" fighter. Hints of a stealth aircraft had been circulating for some time, but the Testor's model gave substance to the rumors. The F-117 was a weird looking craft, angular and black, and looked more like a mount for Luke Skywalker than the boys in Air Force blue. Not long after the Testor's model came out the Air Force went public with the F-117, and later, the B-2 stealth bomber. The weird contours of both planes had perfectly mundane origins. Radar waves normally detect aircraft by reflecting off the plane back to the radar receiver, giving the plane's size, speed, location, etc. The odd shapes of stealth aircraft send radar waves bouncing away from their point of origin, to be lost in the open sky. The sinister black coating seen on the F-117 and B-2 lessens the reflectivity of the metal skin to both light and radar waves.
Ironically, the Germans discovered this property during the war when British ships and planes were detecting U-boats by their exposed snorkels and sinking them. German scientists came up with a special coating called Sumpf, which they applied to submarine snorkels. A compound of rubber and carbon, Sumpf almost obliterated the radar profile of the vulnerable snorkel. Unfortunately for the Germans, Sumpf tended to come loose when battered by constant wave action, so in the end it did little to save the U-boats from destruction. The black coating seen on American stealth planes is said to mostly graphite, a form of carbon.
Once the F-117 and B-2 were in the public eye, attention shifted to other 'black' projects at Nellis Air Force Base, also known by the code name Area 51. One of these, "Aurora," is still secret, but apparently is a high speed (Mach 3+) reconnaissance plane due to replace the old U-2s and SR-71s in the Air Force's inventory. Testor's has come out with new models reputed to show secret planes flown from Nellis AFB, but to date official confirmation is lacking. Also under development at Nellis are sophisticated Remote Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), which are small helicopter-like machines, often spherical or discoidal in shape. Controlled from the ground, RPVs can fly long distances over hostile territory, spying on the enemy below with cameras, infrared vision, motion sensors, etc. It seems the foo fighters have returned, only now they work for us!
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unquestioned world leader in military technology is the United States. While Japan, China, and the nations of Western Europe possess technical skills as advanced as the U.S., few of them have the money necessary to undertake expensive research programs. Therefore speculation about UFOs as secret weapons will continue focused on the United States. Despite the revelations of men like Bob Lazar, who claims to have worked on 'de-engineering' alien technology at Area 51, the SWT remains outside the mainstream of UFOlogy, which tends to endorse the ETH. The SWT has attractive aspects, but until someone turns up a verifiable piece of alien hardware, it will remain only a minor theory.