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Radar Mysteries Over Maine, Florida, and the Midwest Leave Experts Baffled

A radar mystery that began in the skies over parts of the United States late last year has some experts questioning whether the government is involved in secret tests, while others think odd weather might be to blame.

In early December, the National Weather Service reported on what they termed an “anomaly” over parts of the midwestern United States. Here at MU Brett Tingley reported on the incident, which was observed on radar over parts of Illinois, Kentucky, and Indiana. “Whatever was on radar appeared to be as dense as a thunderstorm,” Brett wrote, “but with the night clear and temperatures low, that theory was ruled improbable.” It was determined that the likely cause of the radar traces had been chaff, a substance composed mostly of aluminum that is released from aircraft during military operations and exercises to “confuse enemy radar.” However, as Brett noted at the time, meteorologist Greg Meffert with the NWS stated that he had “never seen [chaff] quite this hot.”

A few days later, Joseph Trevithick over at The Warzone wrote about a second radar incident, reporting that similar anomalous traces had appeared over parts of Maine and Florida just two days later. The National Weather Service confirmed on their Twitter account that the new radar anomalies also resembled chaff, although Trevithick noted that the December radar blips seemed to last longer than chaff typically does.

Chaff, as depicted on a radar visual display (Wikimedia Commons).

“We have already reached out to the National Guard Bureau,” Trevithick wrote, “but at the time of writing, we have not received any additional information about this new incident over Maine. We’re reaching out to additional commands regarding the plume in Florida, as well.”

Since that time, little else was reported about the incidents. That is, until today, when Jon Webb with the Evansville Courier & Press wrote about the peculiar December incidents. While they do appear to be related to military operations involving chaff, a few questions do remain.

“Whatever it is, it’s exceedingly strange,” Webb wrote, citing an email exchange he had with a member of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) who told him, “We believe there is more to the story than what the FAA and military and publications such as ‘The War Zone’ are telling us.” (Does it matter to the unnamed MUFON investigator that even The Warzone’s Trevithick noted having some problems of his own with the chaff theory? Maybe they didn’t read to the end of the article… who knows.)

“More NWS hubs will get confused,” Webb concluded, “And more conspiracies will be born.”

So what was going on back in December, and does the assertion by Trevithick and others that certain aspects of the incidents didn’t resemble “typical” military exercises involving chaff amount to anything?

A pair of B-1B Lancers, 28th Bomb Squadron, deploy chaff and flares during a military exercise (public domain).

According to a Department of National Defense study from 2008, chaff is described as “a radiofrequency countermeasure released by military aircraft (ships and ground vehicles) to confuse enemy radar.” At the time this report was produced, chaff was used in approximately 26 U.S. states.

The report states that “the effective use of chaff can be maintained only by practicing in-flight deployments during training issues.” It goes on to say that, “The release of chaff into the environment during these exercises has raised concerns among both public-interest groups and the government regarding the fate and environmental impact of chaff particles.”

Concerns about the environmental effects of chaff go back to at least 1993, resulting in a military report that indicated that there were few–if any–significant environmental risks associated with its use in military exercises. However, a 1998 report by the congressional General Accounting Office continued to argue that chaff could have negative environmental effects, in addition to potentially interfering with civilian ATC radar systems.

More recently, controversies arose over the use of chaff last year in relation to the companies that produce it, and their potential future ownership by foreign entities. Presently, Esterline Defense Technologies (also known by the name Armtec) is the only company in the United States that produces chaff for use in military activities. In 2018, it was reported that Esterline/Armtec would be acquired by the UK-based TransDigm Group Inc. The news prompted a bipartisan letter from Congress to Jim Mattis, then-U.S. Defense Secretary, calling for the U.S. government to block the deal.

“TransDigm has repeatedly purchased companies that are the sole providers of Department of Defense items and engaged in price gouging,” the letter, co-authored by California Democratic representative Jackie Speier and North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, argued. “The abuses have been sufficiently common and severe enough to warrant a DoD inspector general investigation. Unsurprisingly, Esterline is the sole DoD chaff provider and one of two flare providers. The alarm bells should be ringing.”

In essence, the controversies surrounding chaff and its use seem to have been an ongoing point of contention for decades. But in sum, do military exercises account for the odd radar returns that were occurring late last year? Also, could it be possible that the military is testing a new kind of chaff or similar substance, following the news that Esterline/Armtec could be acquired by TransDigm? There is no proof that this is the case, but if we were to speculate, it might account for some of the more unusual aspects reported with the December incidents, as well as why so many were reported around that time.

Then again, for all we know maybe the December radar incidents were just good old, Esterline/Armtec chaff that was clouding up radar systems over the Midwest and parts of the East Coast. At present, no further information about the incidents has been made available to the public, nor have any similar radar anomalies been reported… so the rest is left (as per usual) to our imaginations.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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