An Assessment of the National Security Implications of First Contact

Lee Clark is a cyber intelligence specialist who has worked in the commercial, defense, and aerospace sectors in the US and Middle East. He can be found on Twitter at @InktNerd. He holds an MA in intelligence and international security from the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  An Assessment of the National Security Implications of First Contact

Date Originally Written:  September 23, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  November 30, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a cyber intelligence professional in the aerospace industry. This paper will assess the hypothetical international security fallout and nuances of first contact with alien life. The paper assumes that no human-extraterrestrial interaction has ever occurred. Thus, Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) and Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) reports are not considered evidence of contact. The author does not believe humans have ever encountered aliens, but does not rule out the possibility that life may exist elsewhere in the universe.

Summary:   Despite fictional portrayals of first contact, it is most likely that alien life encountered by humanity would be so different from any life encountered by people on earth that it would be inconceivable to plan for, and possibly even unrecognizable. First contact protocols in this scenario would likely be led by scientists. In the unlikely event that humanity encounters intelligent / communicative life, the response would more resemble a whole-of-society approach.

Text:  The main precedent for managing contact with intelligent alien life in the public space is the post-contact policy of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence institute (SETI), once a NASA program and now a privately-funded research entity[1]. SETI focuses on radio signals, and their protocol is designed on the premise that aliens would send them a deliberate signal. Under SETI’s protocol, initial response to the revelation of intelligent alien life via radio signal would be guided primarily by the astrophysics community.

The SETI model, laudable though their mission is, has two key weaknesses. First, the likelihood that alien life would have developed along a similar enough trajectory and timeline to human civilization that the two societies would both have compatible radio technology is so small as to be negligible. If there is alien life with sentience and societal construction, their biology, ecology, sociology, and technology would be adapted to their unique home environment, as humans have adapted to the realities and limitations of Earth. Alien life is much less likely to resemble a little green man in a spaceship than, for instance, a jellyfish, anemone, or perhaps a sentient cloud of gas. The possibility of alien life, having developed in an alien environment, evolving to produce sentience, intelligence, and technology as humans conceive of them is extremely unlikely. If they do have technology, it would be adapted to their own needs, not ours. If humans find aliens first, it will likely not be because the aliens send humans a radio signal, or land on the White House lawn. If humanity wishes to find life elsewhere, it would most likely require a dedicated effort across the scientific community, including sending secondary sensors and exploration mission equipment on routine space missions.

Second, the implications of the existence of alien life, especially intelligent life or one or more developed societies, is so far-reaching that the first response cannot be responsibly left to the scientific community alone. A collaborative response by the international community would likely include a three-pronged approach: First, a group to handle contact consisting of an international team of civilian expertise such as linguists, engineers, astrophysicists, mathematicians, diplomats, and biologists. Second, an international defense team consisting of security expertise including tactical and strategic intelligence professionals, military strategists and leaders, and legal experts. Third and finally, an international team to manage public relations, likely a collaboration of civilian and military public affairs experts to determine if, when, and how much to reveal to the general public.

Even this approach has flaws: the likelihood that any nation discovering alien life would share it with other nations and coordinate a joint response is less than the likelihood of a nation concealing the information and attempting to use it to strategic advantage, as evidenced by the geopolitics surrounding the sharing of a potential COVID-19 vaccine between nations[2]. The internet, social media, and global disinformation campaigns would also make the calm, procedural, constructive handling of the revelation unlikely, and the potential for public panic or other severe obstacles is high[3].

If this article assumes no contact has ever occurred between humans and alien life (i.e. UFOs and television-style government conspiracies are fictitious or not related to actual alien existence), there are two overarching paths that first contact could take, both with numerous implications. The first is that alien life is intelligent and / or some form of sustained communication is possible. This is by far the least likely path. The second path is that alien life is not intelligent or sentient, or that no communication is possible.

If humanity were to discover intelligent aliens (or they were to discover us) and communication is possible, there are three basic possibilities that fall along a sliding scale of conflict. Relations between humans and intelligent aliens would either be peaceful and diplomatic, hostile and violent, or some fluctuation between the two over time. The possibilities within this framework are endless. Perhaps initial contact will be peaceful, only for hostilities to break out later into the relationship, or vise versa. Perhaps the aliens will be vastly more technologically sophisticated than humans, or vice versa, or perhaps the level of technological advancement between the two civilizations would be balanced. Unfortunately, these eventualities are largely impossible to prepare for, outside of potentially designating task forces to manage the situation should it ever arise.

The second path is overwhelmingly most likely, that any alien life encountered by humanity would be so different from any life encountered by people on earth that it would be inconceivable to plan for, and possibly even unrecognizable as life at all. Earlier the example of a jellyfish was used, but even this is a fallacy. A jellyfish, being alive and carnivorous, but lacking a skeleton, muscles, circulatory system, brain, or often deliberate motor functionality, is the closest approximation imaginable, since jellyfish evolved for a drastically different ecosystem. It is not difficult to imagine the first human to encounter a jellyfish not understanding that the creature was alive, and this would likely mirror the first time humans encounter an alien lifeform too different to be immediately recognized as alive. Human concept of life and biology is intrinsically shaped by the observable reality they exist in, but the environment of alien homeworlds would almost certainly be so different that life could never progress along similar lines to human civilization.

Along the second path, contact with non-intelligent life, the response would likely be driven much more by the scientific community: biologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, and engineers. The potential for speculation of uses of this life, and it’s conservation, could be endless: military, pharmaceutical, aeroespacial?

The disappointing, if not bleak, reality is that humans will almost certainly never encounter alien life, much less intelligent life capable of sustained communication. The probability is simply too low. That said, the potential significance of the existence of aliens means that there may be value in investing limited funds and efforts into the search. Outside of the hard national security and scientific implications of alien life, there is another, perhaps equally important facet of the search and preparation: sociocultural. Aliens are so entrenched in the popular mind that dedicating some small resources to the search may have public affairs benefits. Put another way: people want to believe.


[1] Paul Davies. The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. 2011.

[2] Chao Deng. “China Seeks to Use Access to Covid-19 Vaccines for Diplomacy.” The Wall Street Journal. August 2020.

[3] Daniel Oberhaus. “Twitter Has Made Our Alien Contact Protocols Obsolete.” Motherboard. 2017.

Assessment Papers Extraterrestrial Life Lee Clark