Dodging a Missile

California’s mysterious contrail reminds us of our vulnerability to surprise attack.

A news helicopter flying over Los Angeles on Monday night caught more than the usual skyline shots and traffic backlogs. While the chopper’s camera rolled, a plume of smoke and possibly flame rose up from the horizon and arched out over the Pacific Ocean, from a position the news crew estimated to be approximately 35 miles from America’s largest city on the West coast. While there has been no confirmation from the military, speculation quickly centered on an alarming possibility — that a ballistic missile had been fired within sight of the U.S. mainland … one that the military reports no knowledge of.

Since the possible missile launch was first reported late on Monday, there has been a chorus of confused responses from various U.S. government agencies. NASA reports no launches from Vandenberg Air Force base since last week, with no further planned until December. The Federal Flight Administration claims that nothing was detected on local radar and that no commercial rocket launches were authorized. The joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Command, and the United States Northern Command, will say only that they are investigating the reported incident and do not believe there to be a threat to American national security. The Navy said tersely that the launch was not related to their forces.

The Pentagon has no explanation, but at least one official has said anonymously that the consensus of the government is that the apparent missile launch was in fact the contrail of a commercial aircraft distorted by an atmospheric optical illusion. But even this is apparently a conclusion drawn from negative evidence — since the military can’t determine what the object actually was, they are concluding that it was nothing at all, just an illusion. That might well be true, but won’t do much to undo the confusion of the past day.

As American television played the video of the alleged missile climbing and news websites speculated as to what could have caused it, it was disturbing how little evidence high-ranked officials had to offer. It is disturbing enough to ponder the fact that an unknown force would be able to fire a missile in Los Angeles’ backyard. Even more disturbing is that the entire United States government and its mighty armed forces don’t seem to have the slightest idea what happened, or even if anything happened at all. Whether the video shows an optically distorted contrail or a missile’s plume, surely, there is a simple answer. A missile was launched or not. Why did it take a full day before a Pentagon official would anonymously speculate that it was nothing?

Even if this incident is revealed to have been non-threatening, the confusion concerning whether or not an incident had even occurred is troubling because of just how dangerous this situation can be. Both Russia and China field ballistic missile submarines capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles from beneath the waves. If such a missile attack were to be undertaken that close to the shores of the United States, the missile could reach its target within five minutes, far faster than the American military could confirm the attack, calculate its target and probable national origin, and notify the President so that a counter-attack could be initiated.

Such near-shore surprise attacks were a Cold War planner’s nightmare — the probable time to impact would be less than the minimum time required to respond to it. During early 1960s, fear that a Soviet submarine attack targeted against the Strategic Air Command’s bomber bases could destroy America’s B-52 and refueling tanker fleet while still on the ground fundamentally reshaped America’s nuclear forces. While the bomber fleet was maintained on constant alert, the United States rushed development of Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ballistic missiles, giving the country a long-range strike force that could be kept far away from vulnerable coastal areas.

The Navy also developed the Polaris missile, that could be fired from submerged submarines, giving the United States an easily hidden, awesomely powerful second-strike force that provided America with a safe deterrent sufficient to destroy dozens of Soviet cities. The development of the nuclear strike triad continues to shape U.S. defense doctrine to this day, and was almost entirely due to the kind of threat that seemingly manifested itself off the coast of California this week.

The end of the Cold War has not ended the threat. While the likelihood of a sudden, “bolt-from-the-blue” attack by Russia or China is exceedingly low, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile launcher systems makes an asymmetrical attack upon a technologically advanced Western country distressingly possible. A country like North Korea or Pakistan, or one day Iran, could strike a devastating blow against the United States by using a limited number of nuclear weapons to generate an electromagnetic pulse over North America, destroying our power grids and virtually all electronic devices, including vital communications and command and control links. Such an attack, probably the most realistic doomsday threat facing the West today, could easily be carried out by submarines or even cargo ships carrying nuclear-tipped missiles in North American coastal waters.

Clearly, whatever Monday’s event was, the inability of the United States to swiftly even confirm whether a missile even had been launched raises tough questions about whether or not America is in a position to respond to a sudden attack from its coastal waters. Should the contrail over Los Angeles prove to be nothing, America should count itself lucky to have had this as a wakeup call. Next time, it might be the real thing. The time for America to get ready is now.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @mattgurney.