I haven’t written a post on the “mystery missile” filmed by a CBS helicopter crew on Monday evening, because I don’t have any special information about the event and can only offer analysis. In general, I think it’s a good idea to see what the military says, and I figure they’re probably being pretty straight with us. Disagreeing with their bottom line isn’t necessarily useful.
That said, here’s my take. First, the Pentagon has not said, at any point, that this was definitely an aircraft. The most their spokesman has said is that it was “most likely” an aircraft, and that they have nothing to say it was a missile. A number of amateur analysts have picked up on that ambivalence in the official statements. All the Sudden Contrail Experts out there who are certain this was just a jet aircraft contrail are welcome to feel vindicated by the Pentagon statement, but it simply wasn’t a categorical assertion one way or the other. (Read the link above for a good summary of contrary factors in why this was not a jet aircraft contrail.)
What do I think it was? I think it was a missile. Unlike most of the Sudden Contrail Experts, I’ve actually seen missile launches (and plenty of jet aircraft takeoffs and carrier launches, for that matter). The great majority of military officers and NCOs with relevant experience have agreed with that assessment, if you look through their comments at military-themed websites and the popular conservative websites. (There is little point in looking for senior officers and NCOs in the comments at left-wing websites.)
The way the object moves is like a rocket-propelled vehicle after launch. It has the arcing rocket trajectory of a missile in the launch phase. Watching the object rise skyward, you can see a rocket burn very clearly. This set of circumstances is utterly uncharacteristic of jet airplanes. You definitely don’t see it with airliners, and a fighter jet couldn’t simulate the whole segment of the trajectory observed in the video.
Airliners take off from LAX all the time and never show the rocket-burn glow we see in the video, even in the same ambient light/humidity conditions. Fighter jets take off from Miramar and turn out over the coast all the time, and they don’t show this intense glow from their jet engines either. Nor do Navy jets operating from aircraft carriers off the coast. There is a single object ascending in this video, and it’s a missile being borne aloft by a rocket with a big, honking burn.
There is a slight, hesitant juking movement observable during the portion of the launch ascent visible to us, which I attributed in my original thinking to a controller sending it a new command. My tentative conclusion was that it was a dummy/target missile for an intercept test, launched from either Catalina Island or an offshore launch platform. We have such offshore launch platforms, but as far as I know, we’ve never used them anywhere but at the Pacific Missile Test Range off Hawaii. It would be unusual to launch this kind of test missile off SOCAL.
I note, however, that Air Force General Thomas McInerney, commenting on Fox on Wednesday night, attributed the missile’s “juking” more generically to the guidance system kicking in. (I’m calling it “juking” to convey what I mean most effectively to non-experts.) The point readers can take from this observation is that the kind of missile this looks like – a big one, of the type we use for ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and certain missile defense testing – has a guidance system that is designed to come online at a certain point in the trajectory. So my “story” about a test-launch controller might be valid, but isn’t the only explanation for guidance apparently kicking in.
General McInerney expressed certainty that this was a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). I’ve seen comments from submariners at a couple of websites conveying the same certainty. I won’t say it couldn’t possibly be an SLBM, but I don’t think it is one. The tiebreaker for me is how early in the flight the “guidance break” appears to have occurred. This is educated guessing, but the event seems to me to fit best a scenario in which a test controller launched the missile by mistake, and sent it guidance as soon as he could to proceed on a suppressed trajectory and splash harmlessly somewhere in the Eastern Pacific.
An actual Trident II D-5 SLBM launch would have seen the missile ascend higher and higher in a longer and more powerful boost phase. The missile in this video wasn’t heading for an apogee of more than 500 miles above the earth or a range in the thousands of miles. If the launch was deliberate, I would have expected to see that; if it wasn’t, the likelihood that a missile launched unexpectedly would be sent emergency guidance so quickly is low, in my opinion. The reaction time would have been longer.
That goes for either a US or foreign SLBM launch, and I consider either one equally unlikely. It is very, very hard to launch an SLBM from an Ohio-class submarine by mistake. I honestly can’t imagine it happening. There are multiple layers of positive controls.
The area of this sighting isn’t where Pacific-based Ohio-class SSBNs launch SLBMs from anyway. It’s much too close to the coast.
Nor do I think there is any serious possibility that this was a foreign submarine launching a missile. There is no conceivable reason to do so, and we have good reason to believe the safeguards against unplanned missile launches are as rigorous in the Russian and Chinese submarine forces as they are in ours.
If this was a US missile launch, why has the Pentagon told us they have no evidence that that’s what it was? Should we believe that that means it literally went undetected? Maybe. Looking at the video, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the event to have been detected as a missile launch on the FAA’s radar network. The part of the trajectory we see is at relatively low altitude and doesn’t look like fixed-wing powered flight, which is what the civilian radar network is optimized to detect and identify. It might have registered as an unidentified target, if the radar painted it enough times and integrated the detections as a single object.
As to whether national detection systems should have caught it: first, the military isn’t going to tell us if they did. But second, those systems aren’t optimized for launches from such a short distance off the SOCAL coast. The magnitude of the rocket burn tells me that if the right sensor had a “look” at the area, it would certainly have been detected. But the right sensor may not have had that particular look at the time.
The Heritage Foundation has moved on from the missile-versus-aircraft question, and perhaps wisely so, but it points out something that is incontrovertibly true, which is that we do not have a dedicated, 24/7 layer of national missile defense designed to detect missile launches so close to our coast, track such missiles, and shoot them down. I made that point over a year ago when the news erupted that the Russians were sending cruise missile submarines to sit off our East coast again.
We’re ready, and have been for some time, to detect missile launches that come from hundreds of miles off our coasts or further. When it comes to missiles launched from a few dozen miles off our coasts: not nearly so much.
Bottom line: I think it was a missile launch. My best guess is that it was a test vehicle for a program the military doesn’t want to talk about, and that the launch occurred at the wrong time. I think the president and Congress have been briefed on what it was, and that it’s true that there was no danger to the US or to any civilians. I also think that this was not a launch of anything with a live warhead on it. That would warrant investigation, the firing of senior people, and some serious flagellation of the Pentagon by the president and in Congress. We aren’t seeing that; I conclude that this was an error that certainly shouldn’t happen again, but not one that merits an existential self-examination by national authorities.