Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Little Perspective, Please

This is getting ridiculous.

We've heard some far-fetched explanations for the smoke plume that appeared off the California coast Monday evening, but this one takes the cake.

"Did North Korean Launch Mystery Missile?"

A blog called "The Right Perspective," run by "NYC's Most Dangerous Callers to Talk Radio," is among the outlets offering that theory. Stringing together a few facts--and tons of speculation--they conclude that Pyongyang was behind that mysterious contrail, sighted in the skies over the Pacific Ocean. From their Tuesday post on the subject:

A missile launched off the California coast Tuesday afternoon may have been launched by Communist dictatorship North Korea as a show of strength ahead of the G20 Summit, scheduled to be held in South Korea tomorrow.

Then, after a recitation of various North Korean provocations, The Right Perspective offers this "clincher," from the grandfather of all conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones:

"Another more frightening scenario is being discussed by insiders at Homeland Security and the super-secret National Intelligence Agency: North Korea has rattled its sabre again, this time with a very, very large missile launched from a Sang-O class submarine modified to carry a missile or towing a missile-launching sea sled. A sea sled missile launch platform was first perfected by Nazi Germany in World War II and planned for use in the closing months of the war against New York and Washington, D.C.

To be fair no one--including experts at the Pentagon--have offered a satisfactory explanation of that mysterious smoke trail (or whatever it was). Late today, a DoD spokesman said the streaks "appear to have been an aircraft condensation trail," adding there was no evidence to suggest any other cause.

But there's a little problem with that scenario. A large aircraft (some have suggested a jumbo jet) heading away from the coast would be transmitting an IFF signal. The FAA's radar system, which tracks aircraft primarily on their IFF squawk, showed no traffic in the area at the time of the incident. Absent a credible explanation from the government, the tinfoil hat crowd is free to spin their outlandish theories.

Unfortunately, their theories have a few holes, too. North Korea's largest sub, the Sang-o class, is barely 100 feet long, less than one-third the size of the earliest U.S. and Russian ballistic missile boats. Fitting an SLBM into that limited space would be virtually impossible. A towed sled offers a more practical approach, but Pyongyang would still face the challenge of getting the sub--and its towed launch platform--across the Pacific, undetected.

We should also note that a Sang-o class boat has a range of only 1,500 miles. Without extensive underway support, i.e., a string of sub tenders across the Pacific, the Sang-o could never make the trip. Not only does the DPRK lack those resources, the sub's transit would likely be detected by ASW assets.

The same holds true for any Chinese or Russian sub. Even at the height of the Cold War, the closest point-of-approach by a Soviet missile boat was no more than 300 kilometers--and that was a reflection of the weaponry available in the 1960-70s. When better missiles became available, patrol areas were re-established 3-6,000 kilometers from our shores.

Today, when Russian "boomers" actually leave port, they patrol in bastion areas close to their ports. With today's SLBM technology, it's possible to for a sub in the White Sea (or off the Kamchatka Peninsula) to attack targets deep inside the United States. The latest Chinese ballistic missile boat, the Type 94 class, has missiles with an 8,000-kilometer range, allowing them to patrol from relatively protected waters in the western Pacific.

Of course, you need to be much closer to launch cruise missiles, which brings us back to the problem of evading surface vessels, helicopters, attack subs and underwater sensors, all dedicated to the ASW mission. If an enemy sub managed to run that gauntlet--even in an era of reduced defensive assets--then every ASW officer in the Pacific Fleet should be fired, along with the Chief of Naval Operations.

At this point, we're not sure what was spotted in the skies off Los Angeles two days ago. The "airplane" theory strains credulity, but so do wild tales about Chinese or North Korean subs, firing missiles near Catalina Island.


Brian said...

The FAA said they had not seen any unidentified aircraft in that area, not that there were no aircraft in that area.

This blogger claims to have found two US Airways flights that could have produced the contrail, with an image from yesterday that looks a lot like the video that sparked this whole debacle:

TOF said...

I agree with you, Spook. My bet is that a CBS camera crew was having a slow day. No car chases to cover to they did a perspective shot on a commercial jet's contrail.

Anonymous said...

It wasnt a contrail; I made and targeted those for 14 years and know what they look like. 't wasn't a cruise missile; I have seen countless of them launched from subs and ships as an airborne safety chase. It left a trail much like a solid rocket with a modern guidance system (smoky with corkscrew affect for vector corrections). As for Chinese subs getting picked up by ASW assets, a Chinese Song class sub got well within shooting range of the Kitty Hawk then surfaced for all to see on a recent military exercise between Japan and Taiwan. Just like that incident, the ICBM launch off the coast of LA was a warning shot across our bow, so to speak, from the Chinese in all likelihood, warning us to keep our carrier battle groups away from their country.

Unknown said...


It's worth remembering the encounter between the PRC sub and the Kitty Hawk occurred relatively close to the Chinese coast, not the eastern Pacific. Big difference. Also, to my knowledge, there's no history of Chinese boats operating anywhere close to our west coast.

Chuck said...

Come on, guys. The simplest explanation applies. Contrail. Period. Doctors, when confronted with a need for diagnosis, typically say, "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras."

jayemarr said...

Liem Bahneman is a friend of mine and that link is worth checking out -- the guy knows planes. Apparently there is a scheduled flight that passes through that area on a daily basis.

I have no idea why the FAA hasn't shared that information.

sykes.1 said...

Similar unexplained sightings have occurred off the Canadian coast. They could be part of antiballistic missile tests, launches near NA and targets somewhere in the central Pacific.