Mystery Missile: Cause For Concern

A Pentagon official, taken by surprise, called the incident “bizarre”. The U.S. military seems stumped, and nobody has been able to offer any explanation so far.

Last night just before dusk, a KCBS news helicopter captured footage of what appears to be a large missile launched about 35 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The launch site, destination and who launched it are part of a mystery.

Of course, this could just be a strange visual illusion — most likely the con trail of a passenger jet, illuminated by the sinking sun. But if it is not, we should be seriously concerned.

If it was indeed a missile — could it be American? Theoretically, yes, but not likely. California is home to several weapons test sites. And the state is home to several U.S. Navy surface ships and submarines capable of executing such a launch, which can be done from a submerged sub. However, the U.S. Navy has denied that any exercise or test took place in the area last night, and has denied any involvement. A spokesperson of Vandenberg Air Force Base, on the coast a little further up north, denied that the con trail originated from there. Neither Navy, nor the Air Force, NORAD or the Defense Department have been able to come up with an explanation so far. And the Federal Aviation Administration had not approved any commercial launch activity in the area on Monday, a spokesman said.

A secret weapons test seems highly unlikely because such tests are not usually conducted in plain sight of a major metropolis, and not in one of the busiest shipping routes along the U.S. West Coast. And firing a large rocket in an unrestricted, civilian airspace would be a violation of all kinds of aviation regulations. And very stupid. Furthermore: judging from the video footage, the con trails seems far too big to come from an amateur rocket.

All the above seems very improbable. Whoever did this must have anticipated (or even desired) the incident to be seen. In the absence of other likely explanations, there are not many plausible scenarios left. But all the remaining ones are all rather disconcerting.

(1) It could have been an accidental firing off a U.S. Navy vessel. (Again, highly improbable, and it would be unwise to attempt a cover-up).

(2) It could have been a demonstration of a hostile foreign nation such as North Korea, which may have secretly developed a submarine-based launch system of their own. In addition to the U.S., Britain’s Royal Navy and the French and Russian navies have the capability as well. And while the first two are allies without a need to conduct such an exercise, Russia would seem disinclined to provoke an international incident with a silly stunt. Besides, the official Russian military has no need to demonstrate their abilities in this area either. Which leaves China and India, both of which have very limited submarine-based missile capability. Both have some new systems believed to come online this year. (Obama is in India at the moment, on his first official visit there. Could this have something to do with it?)

(3) The missile may have been launched from a surface ship disguised as a cargo or shipping vessel — possibly by a terrorist organization or other cartel using a commercial weapons system clandestinely brought close to the American shore. The possible purpose? A demonstration, test or exercise of some sort.

Such systems do exist. The most dangerous I know of is a Russian system developed by Concern Morinformsystem-Agat.

Known as the “Club K Container Missile System”, it consists of 4 surface-to-surface missiles and their launch tubes, concealed in a standard 40-foot shipping container. Such containers are ubiquitous around the world. Tens of millions are traveling on ocean ships, trains and trucks at any given moment. Their sheer number means that they cannot be effectively monitored.

The Club K system is unique in that it appears to be quite autonomous and automated. Concealed within their standard shipping container, the missiles and their launch system could travel, undetected, around the world. Any regular container ship, truck or flatbed train car are possible carriers. Once the container comes within 136 miles (220 km) of its intended target (as determined by GPS), the launch system inside the container activates, erects the launch platform and fires off the missiles. And after that, there is no defense. Ingenious — and very, very difficult to neutralize.

To show how this works, here is a video simulation:

This will be a fascinating story to follow. Clear is only: unless the Pentagon knows something it is not telling the public (and that too would not be unheard of), there is a flurry of major investigations going on right now.

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Journalist and media professional currently based in Los Angeles, California. Focusing on science and technology.