This image, recorded by a Los Angeles TV news chopper, shows the contrail left behind by an aircraft or missile launch off the California coast on Monday. Officially, the Pentagon is still trying to determine the "exact nature of the event." (KCBS/KCAL video, via the Washington Times).
It's been the source of water cooler conversations and endless speculation on the internet. We refer to that mysterious smoke plume that appeared over the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles. The plume, which may have been from an aircraft or a missile, was captured by a news helicopter from KCBS-TV and quickly became an on-line sensation, prompting all sorts of rumors about an accidental launch by the U.S. military; a show-of-force in support of President Obama's overseas trip, provocative test by the Chinese military, or (more likely) none of the above.
Still, more than 24 hours after the plume was first sighted, no one has offered a definitive explanation of what coastal residents witnessed with their own eyes, and millions more saw on television or the internet. If you're among the dozen or so people who haven't seen the video, you can watch it on the KCBS/KCAL website.
Officially, the Pentagon says it is still investigating the incident. Spokesman for the Air Force and the Navy claim there was no test activity in the area at the time of the event. However, the military frequently uses that section of California coastal waters for missile tests and training exercises.
This map shows that much of area north of Catalina Island (and just off-shore from Los Angeles) is reserved for military use. The USAF conducts periodic satellite launches--and occasional ICBM tests--from Vandenburg AFB, northwest of Santa Barbara, while Navy vessels conduct missile testing offshore. So, a military missile launch in the area is hardly unprecedented.
But the object in the KCBS video appears to be moving a bit slow for a land-based or sub-launched ballistic missile. Indeed, the event unfolded more than 30 miles off-shore, so you can rule out a Minuteman III test or Atlas rocket launch for Vandenburg. As for the USN, we have their assurances that no ships or aircraft were operating in the area at the time.
We can also rule out a possible "show-of-force" in support of Mr. Obama's visit to Asia. We've been launching missiles from Southern California for decades, and the tests are so routine, they generate little attention. It's hard to imagine China--or anyone else--getting excited about routine missile test in the area. Besides, if we were conducting a test, exclusion zones would have been declared around the launch site, and extending down range. Press accounts suggest that a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) was posted only after the smoke plume was sighted last night.
And, it may disappoint the tinfoil hat crowd, but the chances of a missile launch from a Chinese or Russian sub near our coast are approximately zero (emphasis ours). While Moscow's ballistic missile fleet has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, the few boomers at sea can strike U.S. targets--with impressive accuracy--from bastion locations near the Russian coast.
As for the PRC, their ballistic missile sub fleet is still in its infancy, but the effective range of their SLBMs extends well beyond 35 miles, even if their accuracy is a bit suspect. Besides, the odds of an enemy sub approaching our coast--and launching a missile undetected--are decidedly slim. The U.S. has invested billions in attack subs, patrol aircraft and undersea sensors designed to keep enemy subs away from our shores. If a Russian or Chinese boat managed to close within 40 miles of Los Angeles (and conduct a missile test), heads would be rolling, from the SecDef on down.
Among the more plausible explanations, some have suggested the plume was caused by an aircraft, flying directly towards the camera. Still, that's a lot of smoke/contrail for a jet and besides, the object appears to be moving away from the news chopper, at least in the video we saw.
Readers will be pleased to learn that, according to NORAD, the missile/jet/UFO did not pose a threat to the homeland. Of course, NORAD and U.S. Northern Command apparently didn't learn of the incident until after it happened. The FAA was also out-of-the-loop, saying the object never appeared on air traffic control radars. From that, we can surmise that whatever it was, it wasn't squawking an IFF signal (surprise, surprise).
Of course, there are other possibilities. Maybe the Pentagon was conducting some sort of test, involving systems or technology they don't want to reveal to the public. As to what that might be, your guess is as good as ours. The object rising into the sky didn't appear to be cutting edge but then again, it might have been a target for some other sort of system, stationed farther out to sea.
Perhaps the most frightening possibility is that the government wasn't involved at all. Two years ago, the Rand Corporation published a lengthy monograph on the threat posed by terrorist-operated cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Many of the scenarios discussed in the study envision maritime platforms (i.e. merchant vessels) being used as launch platforms.
Once the domain of advanced military forces, cruise missiles with limited range (less than 100 miles) are now available on the world arms market for less than $1 million. They would permit stand-off attacks against area targets (including population centers) and they can be employed with relatively little crew training and support infrastructure. And on the other side of the fence, detecting and defeating cruise missile threats from clandestine launch platforms is very, very difficult.
Given the existing holes in our cruise missile defenses, we should all hope that the smoke plume near L.A. was something innocuous.