Secret U.S. Test of Foreign Missile Might Explain Mysterious L.A. Contrail
Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010
WASHINGTON — The use of an obscure U.S. Navy facility at San Nicolas Island to secretly test foreign-made missiles is a possible, if remote, explanation for the appearance on Monday of a mysterious condensation trail in the sky just off the California coast, according to some aerospace experts (see GSN, Oct. 22).
The U.S. government says it does not know what caused the plume, captured on video by a local television crew. Analysts, though, are increasingly pointing to the likelihood that it was produced by a commercial airliner. Under certain conditions, a plane’s path can create an optical illusion that appears to be the vapor trail of a missile launched from the ground or sea.
This might particularly be the case when an aircraft flies from beyond the horizon toward the viewer, several experts said. The phenomenon is even more likely to occur in the visual and atmospheric conditions at sunset, which was the case in the Los Angeles instance.
The proximity of the event to the San Nicolas Island facility, though, has some civilian experts musing about the prospect that the U.S. government simply cannot — or will not — acknowledge a highly secretive missile launch.
“This [could be] where we bought something we don’t want the world to know we bought,” said one former government insider who asked not to be named in discussing a highly sensitive topic.
On at least one occasion in the past, the Defense Department has used San Nicolas — an uninhabited land mass in California’s Channel Islands — for engineering evaluations of foreign missiles that the U.S. military seeks to better understand, experts told Global Security Newswire.
For example, the Pentagon several years ago secretly procured a number of Scud missiles and used them to test U.S. interceptor technologies, according to one specialist. The use of these missiles has since become public.
In such instances, the U.S. government has acquired foreign hardware through clandestine intelligence or military efforts, and the evaluation of these technologies is maintained as a closely guarded secret, observers said.
The CBS affiliate’s video, shot by a helicopter camera crew, appears to show the object taking a slight turn in flight. This might be an indication that the craft was an airplane, rather than a ballistic missile following a smooth up-and-down trajectory, according to specialists.
On the other hand, a ballistic missile can appear to turn slightly as one of its rocket stages separates, aerospace experts said.
Vandenberg Air Force Base, 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast, is frequently used for testing U.S. missiles and launching satellites into space. However, Vandenberg reported that its most recent shot was a Delta 2 rocket launch staged last Friday, sending an Italian satellite into orbit.
If the contrail might be explained instead by the more remote possibility of a U.S. test launch of a foreign missile, sources cautioned that a government acknowledgment of a test program should not be expected.
“Foreign launches are blacker than black, and the companies that do them are paid very well to say nothing,” said the former government insider, using a colloquial term for highly classified military programs.
“There is no evidence to suggest that this is anything else other than a condensation trail from an aircraft,” Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a written statement today. He repeated assurances issued yesterday by the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command that “there was no threat to the U.S. homeland.”
Jonathan McDowell, a widely noted space technology tracker, noted on his blog a number of missile-launch possibilities, including the use of Scuds fired from the ocean off of Point Mugu, California, as notional targets in Missile Defense Agency radar or interceptor tests.
He also said NASA has recently used San Nicolas Island to set off Black Brant 4 rockets, carrying “MARTI” targets, for MDA tests of the Airborne Laser missile defense system. However, McDowell said, NASA has stopped specifying dates for these tests in publicly released schedules.
“If it was a missile launch of any type, the Pentagon knows about it — either because it launched it or because it saw it on early-warning satellites,” said David Wright, a senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you’re trying to keep it secret, it was a silly time of day and place to do it. That seems to make it less plausible.”
The physicist said yesterday in a blog post that if Washington’s denials of a foreign or U.S. missile launch are accepted, the cause of the mysterious contrail would seem to have been an aircraft. A similar phenomenon occurred late last year, Wright noted.
Some chatter among aviation wonks since Monday is pointing to the possibility that a particular flight — US Airways 808 from Honolulu to Phoenix — could have been the culprit.
Today’s Washington Post cited aerospace and defense expert John Pike as saying the object in the video moved too slowly to be a missile. He has concluded that “this thing is so obviously an airplane contrail, and yet apparently all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t find someone to stand up and say it,” according to the Post article.
“It’s very hard to rule out all the options, but at this point all the evidence seems to point to it being a commercial airliner and a pretty good optical illusion,” Wright told GSN today.