In December 2019 and January 2020, the plains of rural northeastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska were the epicenter of a series of sightings of what were widely described as unidentified drones. Despite the media attention these sightings received and the speculation that they were related to the security forces responsible for protecting intercontinental ballistic missile silos scattered throughout the region, military bases in the area denied that the drones were theirs. While the mystery of the drones’ operator or operators remains unsolved, a series of internal emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal just how serious the drone reports were taken by the 90th Security Forces Group and the public affairs office at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. The emails are heavily redacted, but they at least shed some light on the confusion even the base experienced at the hands of this seemingly unsolved mystery. 

In late December 2019, The War Zone was among the first outlets to report on the somewhat bizarre story of fleets of unidentified drones operating in the airspace above northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska. There was a sense of near-panic as law enforcement agencies were inundated with scores of reports of these drones, prompting the creation of a task force that included the FAA, federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, and sheriffs from multiple Colorado counties. Eventually, the State of Colorado sent one of its well-equipped surveillance planes to hunt for the drones. Since then, however, reports of suspicious drone activity have dropped significantly, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety and Nebraska State Patrol.

Despite the large effort and the mobilization of Colorado’s infrared camera-equipped aircraft, nothing conclusive was identified and, to date, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the drone activities. That doesn’t mean that the case is closed, however.

Douglas D. Johnson, a volunteer researcher operating in affiliation with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), recently obtained emails through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which catalog the internal communications of the public affairs office at F.E. Warren and the 90th Security Forces Group regarding the spate of drone sightings. The 90th Security Forces Group provides security both for F.E. Warren and the 150 Minuteman III Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) operated by the 90th Missile Wing

The heavily redacted emails can be read in their entirety here.

Wikimedia Commons

Peacekeeper, Minuteman III, and Minuteman I intercontinental ballistic missiles outside F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

Johnson filed two separate FOIA requests for all official correspondence to and from Jon Carkhuff, a public affairs officer and/or spokesman associated with F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and all official correspondence to and from the headquarters staff of the 90th Security Forces Group that contain any of the following terms: drone, drones, counter-drone, counter-drones, unmanned aerial system, unmanned aerial systems, UAS, counter-UAS, unidentified aircraft, unidentified aerial, unidentified flying, unknown aircraft, UFO, and anomalous. The FOIA requests were for communications ranging from December 15, 2019, through January 18, 2020. The requests were filed on January 18, 2020, and were fulfilled on February 14. 

Many parts of the communications Johnson received are redacted, including the names of the participants in the email chains in which the mystery drones and the base’s response to media inquiries about them are discussed. In an exchange about how to respond to an early media inquiry, an unknown sender writes “We need to ensure he doesn’t feel like we are hiding anything.” On the next page in the same release, after a statement “we do not know the origin of the drones,” one writer inserts the hashtag “#aliens.”

As the FOIA documents show, public affairs staff at F.E. Warren would eventually release an official press statement on January 17 after receiving input from Major General Ferdinand ‘Fred’ B. Stoss III, commander of 20th Air Force, the part of Air Force Global Strike Command responsible for overseeing the entire ICBM force. The final version of the statement that was released states definitively that F.E. Warren was not responsible for the drones:

Aside from discussions and drafts pertaining to the production of that official statement, the FOIA releases contain entire emails that are redacted and seem to have once contained nothing but images of drones taken by eyewitnesses. The only images not redacted are a series taken by a Nebraska State Trooper. 

Douglas D. Johnson

Much of the content in the FOIA releases is redacted. 

Still, despite being heavily censored, the emails reveal that many at F.E. Warren were just as confused by the mystery drones as the public was. 

Questions And Confusion Surrounding Drone Sightings

In one email contained in the F.E. Warren public affairs office FOIA release, the palpable confusion of staff can be detected in the fact that there seems to be no agreement on who might be responsible for the drone sightings. “[Redacted] — understand you’re part of the FBI TF [task force] looking at this? Pls send me an update,” the email reads. “This is becoming a bigger deal. What’s our PA [public affairs] play here right now WRT [with regards to] this (ongoing drone) effort?”

In another email sent on January 2, 2020, an unknown sender notes the bewilderment the region experienced at the height of the drone panic: 

An email within the 90th Security Forces Group FOIA release dated January 8, 2020 states that the drones are “100000000000% not us.” “I’ve seen some articles pointing the finger as us [sic],” the sender writes, “but I can definitely say this is not our team.” 

Even the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) got involved with the drone mystery. AFOSI is military law enforcement and investigative agency that reports directly to the Secretary of the Air Force whose stated mission is to “identify, exploit and neutralize criminal, terrorist, and intelligence threats in multiple domains to the Air Force, Department of Defense and U.S. Government.” Its stated capabilities are to detect threats, conduct investigations, and “protect secrets.” 

A 90th Security Forces Group email dated January 6, 2020, adds that the sender will “defer to [Redacted] on this one since AFOSI is the lead agency on the FEW [F.E. Warren AFB] side for this issue.” In a separate email within the FOIA release from the public affairs office at F.E. Warren, it is written that the AFOSI would send a representative to the closed-door task force meeting held on Jan. 6 in Brush, Colorado. 

US Air Force Security Forces airmen protect part of a missile field during a training exercise.

Several of the emails in the 90th Security Forces Group FOIA release mention AF/A10, the office of the U.S. Air Force Air Staff that oversees Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. “AF/A10 reached down asked for confirmation that we (AFSGC) [Air Force Global Strike Command] are not flying the drones in question,” one email reads. 

In one of the stranger exchanges found in the 90th Security Forces Group release, a participant in the email chain writes that some eyewitness reports state that the drones were dropping what appeared to be “potatoes” and that the Perkins County Sheriff’s Office collected some of them for analysis:

In an email dated January 2, someone else in the email chain added that “The “potatoes” have an agricultural purpose and are used by farmers with their large center pivot irrigation systems.” The Denver Post identified the “potatoes” as SOILPAM Tracklogs, a tool used to help fill the ruts left by wheels on large irrigation systems.

Douglas D. Johnson

An email about the strange “potatoes” reported by the Perkins County Sheriff’s Office.

The War Zone reached out to both the Perkins County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI office in Denver for comment on these “potatoes.” The Perkins County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment, while the FBI issued the following statement:

Counter-UAS Operations At F.E. Warren And Minuteman Sites

Throughout the email chains of both the 90th Security Forces Group and the F.E. Warren AFB public affairs office, there is significant discussion regarding counter-UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operations.

Douglas D. Johnson

An email showing the confusion over possible counter unmanned aerial system operations.

In an email dated Jan. 2, 2020, it is noted that the 90th Security Forces Group does indeed have a section dedicated to UAS operations and that “we have some for testing and training throughout the command.” The sender notes that “We can reach out to them to see if there are any concerns.”

In a heavily redacted email dated Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, with the subject line “Autonomous Base Defense System”, the sender discusses a capabilities demonstration (“capes demo”) at an unknown facility:

On January 10, another message states that engineers from an unknown organization would be on base on Jan. 17 to lead a briefing on an unspecified autonomous base defense system:

Three days later, on January 13, another email “hot on the heels of the info [Redacted] distro’d…” includes a link to an October 2019 Defender Magazine article describing how Buckley Air Force Base outside of Denver, Colorado became the first Air Force Base in the continental United States to declare an operational anti-drone capability. The email then continues “He mentioned [Redacted] was one of the locations that was implementing the Det 24 C-sUAS capes. Interesting timing.”

In the F.E. Warren public affairs FOIA release, an email dated January 2 mentions specifically a “Dedrone contract.” Dedrone is a manufacturer of counter-drone technology platforms featuring an open systems architecture, which “seamlessly integrates with a variety of sensing and threat mitigation technologies, enabling users to customize their platform and meet their specific needs and threat level.” Dedrone designs and manufactures radiofrequency sensors, radar systems, PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras, and the DroneDefender, a rifle-like directed energy weapon designed to disable small drones.

In a Dedrone press release dated August 28, 2019, the company wrote that F.E. Warren was among six Department of Defense facilities chosen to test the Dedrone platform in June of 2018 as part of a Defense Innovation Unit, and “has been continuously testing, evaluating and using the capability for over a year.” According to solicitation documents, the contract was worth $27.5 million. 

However, the Single Source Justification documents for the contract notes that F.E. Warren uses an undisclosed number of other counter-sUAS systems and that “listing the other C-sUAS systems at F. E. Warren and their capabilities, or lack thereof, is classified SECRET//NOFORN.” The document adds that “no other system possesses similar capability” as the Dedrone system.

Single Source Justification documentation for the Dedrone/F.E. Warren AFB contract.

In the F.E. Warren public affairs release, an email cited above dated Jan. 2, 2020 with a timestamp of 1:42 PM and the subject line “[Non-DoD Source] Quick question”, the author asks “Do you know if security forces is playing with UASs up there?” 

Another email sent at 3:54 PM that day with the subject line “Re: [Non-DoD Source] Quick question” states simply “I believe this is the Dedrone contract.” Since the senders and recipients for both emails are redacted, it’s impossible to ascertain conclusively if these two emails were a direct back-and-forth exchange, although the subject lines and timestamps seem to suggest they were likely related. We also have no idea what level of knowledge the recipient had about the system or its operations at the time. This exchange very well could have been merely an off-hand comment that had yet to be confirmed at the time.

An earlier version of the base’s aforementioned official statement on the drone mystery which didn’t make the final cut contained the following text:

Another part of the Email chain explains why certain parts were cut from the final press release:

In the last of the emails contained within the 90th Security Forces Group FOIA release, dated Jan. 16, the author mentions that some sightings could be due to what sound like Starlink satellites: 

Starlink did, in fact, launch a Falcon 9 rocket containing 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 6, 2020. However, it’s difficult to believe that so many people, including law enforcement officers, could mistake strings of Starlink or other small satellites in orbit for low-altitude drones moving dynamically across the area. 

Still No Consensus On The Mystery Drones

Despite the fact that these emails are heavily redacted and don’t conclusively solve the mystery surrounding the wave of drone sightings in Colorado and Nebraska, these FOIA releases show just how seriously these sightings were taken by officials and security forces at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. They also show that shortly after the drone sightings began, a C-sUAS briefing was given at F.E. Warren. It is unknown if that briefing was related in any way to the mystery drone developments. 

It’s important to note, too, that these emails are only a snapshot of what was happening behind the scenes at F.E. Warren. There may be and likely are many missing pieces beyond what is in these redacted emails. In-person meetings, briefings, and phone communications were all likely part of the base’s response to the drone mystery.

The claims that the drone sightings were merely a mass delusion clearly seem to not be the case given the response by officials at F.E. Warren AFB and the reports they cite. The sightings were taken seriously enough that military institutions and federal agencies such as NORAD, USNORTHCOM, MAJCOM, AFOSI, the FBI, DHS, the USAF Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Directorate, and the FAA were involved in investigating the sightings. “As you can imagine this activity has gained the attention of our Commander here at NORAD and USNORTHCOM,” one 90th Security Forces Group email from January 7 reads. “We are fully engaged as well with our FBI and DHS representatives here.” 

Elements of the 90th Security Forces Group during a training exercise.

Furthermore, had the sightings been merely a case of mistaken identity and perhaps public paranoia, then why would F.E. Warren so heavily redact images of suspected drones in this FOIA release? 

Of course, any time a spate of strange or unidentified object sightings in the skies occurs, it’s inevitable that curious would-be eyewitnesses misidentify objects due to confirmation bias. It’s likely that many of the alleged drone sightings were misidentified due to exactly this. Still, these FOIA releases and the level of redaction seem to suggest that at least some of sightings may have legitimately been due to some type of aircraft operating in the area that the Air Force isn’t comfortable disclosing any details about. 

From mysterious ‘potatoes’ of interest to sheriffs making detailed reports of drone swarms to redacted images of aircraft, we are left with more questions than ever. But at least it seems the Air Force was just as puzzled as we were with these bizarre events…

Even if just for a little while. 

Thanks to Douglas D. Johnson and the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU) for providing The War Zone with these documents. Johnson is currently pursuing an appeal for certain redactions in the communications that were submitted as part of these FOIA releases, including the censored images.

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