THE Pentagon was scrambling last night to discover who fired a missile off the Californian coast, 56km west of Los Angeles, without any warning.
The huge rocket, heading in a northwesterly direction, roughly parallel to the coastline, was captured on video by a television crew in a helicopter as it streaked skywards from an apparent launch platform in the Pacific Ocean.
The plume of smoke, which stretched thousands of feet into the sky, had all of the hallmarks of a missile launch from a submarine or ship. However, the Pentagon insisted that no military rocket launch had taken place.
The CBS news crew who had been monitoring traffic along the Californian coast turned their camera towards the plume and a long object at the head of the contrail is clearly visible in the footage.
A spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defence Command, which has the responsibility of monitoring any air or spaceborne object, said that the mysterious object posed no threat to the US. A full investigation was under way into what the rocket was and where it came from, a spokesman for the Pentagon said.
Doug Richardson, the editor of Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, told The Times after examining the video: “It’s a solid propellant missile, you can tell from the efflux [smoke]. But they’re not showing enough of the tape to show whether it’s staging [jettisoning sections].”
He said that if it was a ballistic missile it would have been launched from a submarine. But he suggested that it might have been a Standard interceptor, the anti-missile weapon that is fitted to the US Navy’s Aegis guided-missile cruisers as part of the American missile defence programme.
However, Colonel David Lapan, a spokesman for the Pentagon, was adamant that every branch of the US armed forces had been contacted and the Navy, the Air Force and the Missile Defence Agency all denied being involved in a launch on Monday night when the rocket was spotted.
Colonel Lapan said that no missile could be launched without formal notification to warn air and sea traffic in good time. He said that there had been no notification of a missile launch on Monday night. The Federal Aviation Administration also said that no approval had been given for a commercial launch of a rocket.
Colonel Lapan said that “a lot of people” were trying to find out what it could have been. “At this point we’re not confirming that it was a [missile] launch. So far we can’t explain it.”
The Pentagon’s denial of any involvement appeared to rule out the suggestion offered by Robert Ellsworth, the former US Deputy Secretary of Defence, that it could have been a missile test timed as a demonstration of American military might as President Obama toured Asia. “It could be a test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile from a submarine … to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that,” MrEllsworth said.
The only recent official launch of a missile took place on Friday, when a long-range rocket was fired from Vandenberg Air Force base in California. All of the proper notifications and warnings were issued before the launch. About a week ago, the Japanese Navy carried out a test-firing of an American Standard interceptor from a Kongo-class guided-missile destroyer off Kauai, in Hawaii. The Japanese are retro-fitting their Kongo-class destroyers with the American anti-missile system. But there were no known plans for a further test this week.
“We’ve checked and, so far, the initial information is that there were no defence activities on Monday night that could explain what looked like a contrail off the coast of California,” Colonel Lapan said.
Boeing occasionally launches aircraft from San Nicolas Island, off the California coast, as part of its anti-missile laser testing programmes, but Daniel Beck, a spokesman for the company, said that it was not involved.