A fair few of you may have heard about the UFO scare over Los Angeles on Saturday evening, November 7th (probably some from me complaining about it). An impressive number of videos appeared, depicted an unidentified flying object streaking through the night sky, leaving an impressive plume as it brightened up the night sky. Coincidentally, a keen observer would have noted that particular patch of airspace, including the ocean approaches to LAX International Airport’s runways was closed that night by the United States Navy (USN). That is because, while unidentified to observers in LA, the object was in fact identified to quite a few people, a UGM-133 D5 Trident II submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), en route to a USN missile range in an uninhabited section of the South Pacific. And in that stroke, USS Kentucky, the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) that fired the missile, protected LA once again, as she and her sisters have been for the last thirty years and will continue to do into the foreseeable future.
Now to understand my rather strong statement there, we need to understand exactly what a UGM-133 D5 Trident II is, and more importantly, why we should be a-ok with the Navy just popping one of these $37 million weapons off. (Yeah, $37 million; just that one shot.) The Trident, as I mentioned above, is a submarine launched ballistic missile, able to fired from underwater, and strike its targets with a margin of error less than a football field in diameter. It is one of the most advanced such weapons in the world, fielded by both the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy. Its entire purpose in life: end 14 independent targets, each with the aforementioned margin of error, with nuclear fire from over 7500 miles away, as quickly and as stealthily as possible. In the USN, we have fourteen such submarines, the Ohio-class, dedicated to carrying this awe-inspiring weapon, each carrying twenty four such missiles, including USS Kentucky. The Brits have the Vanguard-class, with four boats, each packing sixteen of these terrifying weapons.
You see, these weapons are a relic of the Cold War, but a relevant one even in the modern day. A concept many of my readers (being the literate sort you all are) called MAD, mutually assured destruction, created these monstrous submarines. In the event of a nuclear exchange, the US and her allies, as well as the Soviet Union and its allies, wanted to be sure they would take their opponent with them. This deterrent factor theoretically prevented either side from initiating a devastating nuclear first strike in a Cold War gone hot. In order to do this, nations had to ensure the survivability of their nuclear arsenals, either by ensuring swift launch, being difficult to track and target, or capable of withstanding a direct attack.
To this end, both sides adopted what is called a nuclear triad, each leg of the triad taking different characteristics of the above methods for MAD. The triad concept divided their nuclear weapons among three forces: rocket forces, air forces, and naval assets, particularly elusive submarines. Strategic Rocket Forces, a separate branch of the Russian military and an arm of the US Air Force (USAF), were equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), some in hardened underground silos, others hidden in ever-mobile trains and trucks. The latter was and is to this day very popular in Russia, where missiles can be anywhere throughout the vast nation, making directed strikes extremely difficult, even with notoriously capable American reconnaissance. The airborne leg is composed of airborne bombers carrying gravity bombs and cruise missiles. During the Cold War, these aircraft were kept on high alert, able to scramble into the air with minutes notice and strike targets around the world, over the poles in the case of a US-USSR exchange, within hours. During times of particularly high tension, entire wings of aircraft were kept airborne around the clock, within easy striking range of their targets over the Arctic Circle.
The final leg were nuclear-armed surface ships and submarines. For the United States, the bulk of nuclear weapons carried aboard surface ships were tactical nuclear weapons, primarily with yields in the tens of kilotons. This in contrast to the warheads of hundreds of kilotons or megatons tipping ballistic missiles. Attack submarines, for example the Sturgeon, Los Angeles, or the new Virginia classes, were similarly equipped. A special breed of submarine was invented, however, for the express purpose of Armageddon, so-called “boomer” ballistic missile submarines. Gigantic submarines, with an emphasis on stealth, these submarines were designed for long-range patrols within missile range of potential adversaries. Silently hidden beneath the waves, the submarines could be summoned to rain nuclear death in the extremely improbable event of a successful first strike. The theory went that while any two legs of the triad could be destroyed with strategic surprise, probably, taking out all three was so hard as to be impossible, particularly finding and destroying each and every “boomer” ballistic missile sub. These submarines can scatter, hide in odd corners of the globe and need never surface again, even to end civilization as we know it.
Many countries maintain this triad, particularly the submarine leg, to this day. We have it in our Ohio-class submarines, of which USS Kentucky is one. Britain maintains her Vanguards, as France does her Triomphant-class. Russia fields the Delta-III and Delta-IV class, the mighty Typhoon, and the brand new Borei class. China defends herself with the Type 92 and 94 classes. Each of these forces of submarines represent a titanic power to destroy the world in under two hours, and a hedge against each of the others, to prevent foolish attempts at overwhelming blows. Each forces’ subs “hide with pride”, ready to avenge their nation in the fires of Armageddon. These subs are among the most advanced in their respective fleets, and represent enormous investments of national time, talent, and treasure.
As such massive investments, we would do well to check in on it. For the USN, that means a half dozen tests a year. Our boomers regularly go out on patrol, several a time, to ensure our nuclear forces are never caught napping. About every two months, one, like USS Kentucky this past weekend, will actually fire an unarmed (no we aren’t wasting perfectly good nukes on godforsaken fish) missile to ensure fleet readiness. Tests are done in port of course, but live fire is the best and only real test of our capability, and lest we forget, a very visible and visceral reminder to would-be enemies of the might of the United States of America. (Entertaining story along these lines: During the Cold War, the USN grew fond of reminding the Soviets exactly what they were dealing with, by surfacing several American SSBNs within range of the USSR around the world simultaneously, just to make sure the point was clear.) Beyond the cynical international message, it remains important the USN maintain a current and thorough understanding of the state of its nuclear force. These missiles tests are a crucial part of that understanding.
Now, for those of you who can’t believe the flight path they saw could possibly be a man-made rocket, let me be perfectly clear: YES IT CAN. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY. You’re comparing it to NASA or ESA (European Space Agency) rocket launches I imagine, clean, straight plumes with gentle accelerations as the rockets shuttle their payloads to orbit. About the only two things a submarine-launched ballistic missile shares with that is the mode of propulsion (multi-stage rocket engine) and that there is a payload in need of delivery, although in this case definitely not into orbit. A ballistic missile’s job is simple: get to the target as fast and as accurately as possible. For a sub-launched missile, this is even more imperative. Due to restrictions on the size and fuel (has to be continuously ready with little maintenance, an exceedingly tall order) of an SLBM, they often travel far lower and a fair bit slower than their larger land-based ICBM cousins. For this reason, combined with shorter ranges to targets (submarines can get pretty close to most any country in the world, 70% of the world is covered by subs after all), SLBMs tend to take lower, more radical, and more direct flight paths. The low angle observed by citizens of Los Angeles is perfectly normal, as the second stage of the rocket accelerates the weapon downrange through the extreme upper atmosphere, generating the magnificent plume seen on so many videos of the event. Further, claims of radical maneuvering are perfectly normal; SLBMs are carrying nuclear warheads rated for dozens of Gs (G force as a measure of acceleration), not humans or delicate science equipment. Wrenching power turns and rocket boosts are par for the course. Thus, the video, and its amazing contents.
If you would like a play-by-play of the entire launch sequence down to warhead release, I recommend this Imgur thread, which I will not attempt to replicate here, and appears to be generally enough accurate: http://imgur.com/gallery/ylKYd. This FoxtrotAlpha link is also a good overview of many points I have touched on, and a few more I shall leave to Mr. Rogoway: http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/video-analysis-of-trident-missile-test-over-california-1741723854. This article also includes some of the best launch video I have seen of the event itself, a nice bonus.
Now I would like to address a particular segment of the public, the part disappointed to find out that no, we didn’t finally get public proof of aliens. I am perfectly willing to entertain discussions of the notion the US or other governments have little green or gray allies, in Area 51 or similar desolate locales around the world. (I don’t think we can keep a secret quite that big, but that’s me.) However, if you are interested in myself and others taking you seriously, in this instance, better hashtags could have been chosen. #NavyMissle? #MissleTest? Really? Really? That’s the best the lot of you could come up with? Frankly I’m disappointed. You’re generally such an imaginative lot. And to everyone else swept up in the moment, yes, it was an extremely unusual and rare event. Videos of SLBM launches, particularly the high-altitude part, are few and far between I will grant. But the Navy released what it was within hours. Even a cursory search on the Internet and some simple figuring could have placed the launch in the ocean just off LA, whose airspace was closed off by none other than the USN for the whole week. Two and two can make four, people. I understand that the square root of -1 is a more intriguing and complex (see what I did there?) number, but use your heads. We weren’t invaded, there weren’t close encounters of any kind. It was just the US Navy doing its job, protecting your ability to be this sheltered and so trusting of social media jibber-jabber. Please, people, I’m begging you, think. And thank USS Kentucky when she comes home to Bangor, Washington. She’s done good.
As always, feel free to comment below and thanks for reading. – GP