LA vapour trail mystery: was it a Chinese missile?
The real possibility of a Chinese missile system to rival Trident adds new dimension to naval race
Ten days after the sighting of a mysterious vapour trail offshore from Los Angeles, experts are taking seriously the speculation that it was was a ballistic missile – and that it was a Chinese one at that, fired by a Chinese Navy nuclear submarine from beneath the waves just 35 miles off the California coast. Cold War fiction becomes a 21st century warfare reality.
It was at sunset on November 8 that the cameraman aboard the CBS News Chopper out of LA caught a single spiralling vapour trail shooting heavenward. It looked very much like a rocket or a large ballistic missile. The mystery deepened when the Pentagon and the federal security agency NORAD confirmed that there had been no American missile test firings anywhere in the region, and that they too were baffled by the vapour trail.
Over the next two days, the pronouncements from NORAD to the LA Times seemed more to do with Hollywood - an incident from Men in Black maybe - than sober military fact. "We are unable to provide specific details, but we are working to determine the exact nature of this event... we can confirm however there is no indication of any threat to our nation." Then, on November 10, the Pentagon announced there was no evidence that it was anything other than an aircraft.
This has led experts to jump all over the blogosphere to say that no airliner leaves a trail like that (pictured above). So far a missile expert from MIT, a leading analyst from the Jane's Defence Group and a former US ambassador to Nato have all said that it was most likely to be a missile launch. And, according to my UK defence sources, the backroom boys in the US Navy and Royal Navy are taking seriously the theory that it was the Chinese Navy.
If it was a Chinese ballistic missile test-firing, then it demonstrates a capability that no one in the West thought the Chinese had. It also shows brilliant timing by Beijing.
Last week the Chinese leadership was getting pretty snitty about the demands being made by President Barack Obama at the Seoul G20 summit about devaluing the yuan, the Chinese currency, and generally playing ball to help the US out of its deficit difficulties. Beijing was also getting fed up with the relentless questioning of China's human rights record that accompanied G20 and the visit to China by David Cameron.
A test-firing worries the US because it would mean that the sub had got to California undetected – and China was thought to be way behind in submarine stealth technology. What is already known about Chinese naval expansion, including new aircraft carriers, new Pacific bases, and a new submarine programme, has been worrying enough. The possibility of a missile system to rival Trident adds another dimension to the Pacific naval race.
The issue of China's new missile armoury is now expected to push the whole question of missile defence right up the agenda at the Nato heads of government summit opening in Lisbon today.
The main items for debate were expected to be an exit strategy for Nato forces from Afghanistan, a new strategic concept for the alliance, retooling relations with Russia, and anti-missile defence – and in that order.
Now there will be a major push to establish a much deeper missile defence across the alliance – running as far south as the Azores, across Africa and into the Caucasus and to the High Arctic - because of the new array of intermediate and long-range missiles now being developed by Iran, North Korea, and China among others.
It is a bitter-sweet moment for the Royal Navy, threatened with deep cuts under David Cameron's defence review. The US has already drastically cut back its fleet of hunter-killer submarines since the end of the Cold War, from around 70 to about 30 today, and as few as 22 within five years. The hunter-killer attack boat is the best means for detecting and trapping another submarine, as in Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October.
Most of America's hunter-killer subs are now likely to be needed to keep track of the Chinese in the Pacific. This means the Royal Navy's seven new Astute hunter-killers are likely to have to take charge of patrolling the Atlantic for rogue submarines – and they may have to do this without the Americans. The Cameron defence review has just cancelled the over-budget and overdue Nimrod MFRA4 long range patrol aircraft – a vital component in this kind of anti-submarine warfare.
Though the £3.5 billion Nimrod programme has bitten the dust, it might be worth putting on a small bet that the UK will be in the market for a new generation long-range patrol aircraft long before the next election. Only this time it's likely to be called Airbus or Boeing, rather than Nimrod. ·
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