Amazing Cockpit Video Of Unusual Trident Ballistic Missile Test May Point To New Warhead

Experts agree that the video may show a high-speed "depressed trajectory" that would be used by the controversial new W76-2 low-yield warhead.

Video Screencap

No less than four D5 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles were fired from the USS Nebraska off the Southern California coast between September 4th and September 6th, 2019. We detailed this rare test in an article posted shortly after it occurred. Now, a video we received shows one of these launches from the perspective on an Airbus airliner's cockpit as it flew from Guadalajara to Tijuana, Mexico. Any rocket or ballistic missile launch from such a perspective is fascinating to see—as the aircrew's dialogue proves—but the one recorded appears to have been potentially unique and quite timely considering ongoing U.S. nuclear weapons developments in response to peer state competition abroad. 

You can watch this intriguing video for yourself below: 

The video, which is downright gorgeous, shows the Trident missile rising from the Pacific ocean at twilight and streaking westward across the sky. You can clearly see two distinct stage separations and one of them falling away as the missile's third stage continues on, barreling westward. But what's strange about it is that the missile looks to level out and fly a relatively low and flat trajectory as it roars across the sky. We don't know the distance of the aircraft to the missile, and of course, the aircraft's altitude and range from the missile is going to make a difference as to where it appears in the sky from the aircrew's perspective, but this looks too flat even taking those factors into account.

USN

Trident missile launch from an SSGN.

I reached out to a number of experts in ballistic missile and strategic capabilities about the video in question. Every one of them agreed that it does look to be a "depressed trajectory." One, who was only willing to discuss his analysis on background, said quite definitely that it was a unique, flatter trajectory than what these missiles usually fly to deploy their extremely powerful reentry vehicles. Another stated the same. I also discussed the video with Ankit Panda, an international security expert who focuses on strategic weaponry. He took a good look at the video and agreed that it could to be a depressed trajectory test, stating:

"The launch angle does appear to be slightly depressed. While it's difficult to ascertain with any certainty from the footage alone, a depressed trajectory test would not be particularly unusual. With the development of the low-yield W76-2 warhead, promptness is at a premium. Depressed trajectories shorten flight times considerably."

 The development of the W76-2 is something we have been following closely and mentioned in our original writeup about the launches, noting the following:

Regardless of whether the launches were routine or not, this large test event also comes as the United States and Russia are finding themselves increasingly at odds over strategic arms control and other nuclear weapons-related issues and signs of a new arms race are already growing. The U.S. government has publicly said that it needs the W76-2 in large part to counter potential Russian developments, as well as the country's purported "escalate-to-deescalate" doctrine. Experts continue to disagree about whether this policy actually exists.

The W76-2 came to be out of recommendations from the 2018 Strategic Posture Review and was designed quickly using the existing W76-1 that flies aboard the D5 Trident II missile by lowering its yield dramatically, from 100 kilotons to around 5-7 kilotons. This allows for tactical nuclear weapons effects, but delivery via an at-the-ready strategic delivery system that can hit pretty much any target on earth in a very short period of time. By depressing the trajectory of the missile, it can get to its target even faster, but doing so sacrifices range and payload capacity.

Pantex Youtube video screengrab

Pantex workers with a W76 warhead. 

The use of a depressed trajectory and faster flight times may also work to help the missile survive any enemy anti-ballistic missile defenses beyond just cutting down the kill-chain duration. For decades, the idea of using these fast flight profiles has been touted as uniquely well suited for executing decapitation strikes and taking out extremely time-sensitive targets, albeit it could mean starting a nuclear exchange in the process. Even using them in a broader nuclear exchange against key targets has been a possible application of the tactic. There are limits to just how fast and shallow a trajectory is possible, though, mostly due to the thermal loads the missile system can endure. You can read more about the potential use of depressed trajectories for submarine-launched ballistic missiles here

The timing for such a test is also logical, as the W76-2 entered production in January of 2019 and the first completed warhead rolled off the Pantex line in late February 2019.

It's also worth mentioning that a number of notices were posted with general warning areas highlighting where the launches would occur and where the weapons' stages and warheads would fall. Aside from the eastern Pacific where the launch would occur, waters off Hawaii and Guam were designated. It's possible that Hawaii is where the shorter-range, depressed trajectory test's warhead landed.

So, with all this in mind, is it possible that this video depicts the test of the new W76-2 fired on a depressed trajectory? The answer seems to be a strong yes. In addition, considering the Nebraska launched four test missiles, one can assume that different launch profiles and warhead configurations were tested. 

As for what the pilots were saying while all of this was going on, here is a translated transcript of their conversation:

0:00-0:30 Affirmative.

(Unintelligible) 

4-5 level 3-4-0.

4-5 Hello, good evening 3-4-0.

Wow, what is that?

I don’t know.

(Unintelligible)

I have no idea but it’s super interesting.

0:30-1:00 Wow, son of a bitch.

Did you film it?

Yes, I’ve got it.

Yes, this is super (unintelligible).

1:00-1:26 Are you filming?.

Yes.

(Unintelligible)

Shit, hopefully, it doesn’t circle around us. (laughter)

Intercom: Is someone seeing this?

Affirmative.

1:27-2:00 It’s an intense light in the front and like a sphere in the interior, inside the trail it is leaving.

Yes, it’s also being reported in various traffics.

(Unintelligible) Military sites.

Wow, it’s so impressive.

(Unintelligible) 24-08.

2:00-2:25 (Unintelligible)

How impressive.

English speaker: ...212, flight level 360.

212, we’re at contact(?) 360.

2:26-2:31 Volaris 938, hello, contact 360.

Contact 938.

2:32-2:59 Can you come to the cabin?

Female: I’m here, captain.

980, hello, contact 360.

For information, the conditions are stable at 360.

Thank you, (unintelligible) 980. Let’s hope that this lasts a while because there have been reports here at 360 (unintelligible).

Look at the sky.

3:00-3:37 Female: What is that?

We don’t know.

It came out like a trail (unintelligible).

(unintelligible) Volaris 531.

Well, look, apparently at 11 of our position, um, one of the two objects is already falling to the ground. 

(Unintelligible) ...the Vandenberg base (unintelligible). That’s surely the case.

(Laughing) Haha North Koreans. They’re here already.

3:38-4:03(Unintelligible) 2-8-4-3 (unintelligible) contact with 24-4, is it ok that we’re on this frequency?

37 years flying and I have never seen (unintelligible) so close.

Look at how beautiful.

(Unintelligible) 29 miles west of Obregon, 3-4-0.

Intercom: Thank you, yes, I was advised of the light that is visible at northeast.

4:04-4:18 Affirmative, so you’re also able to observe it?

Yes, it’s very bright, it gives me the impression that it might be like a (unintelligible) but it’s lasted a long time. It’s uh very different than anything we have seen normally.

4:19-4:31Yes, thank you, it is being reported in Punta Penasco to north Hermosillo. It looks like it’s visible in the entire northeast part of the country.

4:32-5:08Well, let’s keep watching. Can you authorize (unintelligible) to see if we can see it better? (laughter)

Affirmative, maintain 3-6-0, Volaris 8-4-3.

3-6-0, 8-4-3, thank you.

Wow, (unintelligible)

The one in the back already fell.

Yes, they’re reporting that one is going down. Let’s hope it’s not Rodolfo. (laughter).

That’s correct, otherwise, his kids will be left all over the place.

Let’s hope it’s not Rodolfo. (laughter)

5:09-6:21 You saw that something fell?

You could see another little light, it looked like it was in the middle, but it fell. It left, you can’t see it now.

(unintelligible)

0-8-2-7 received, maintaining 2-3-0

Is it moving away?

Yes.

Thank you, who is soliciting 2-5-0, please? 

2-4-0-8, I can authorize 2-6-0 or 2-4-0.

2-4-0 reported a continuous, light, stable

2-4-0, 2-6-0 light, continuous.

Look, look, it stopped and ended up looking like a star.

We can only imagine how impressive the light show looked like being actually in the cockpit, but the crew of this A320 may have actually caught a very unique moment, even for what were already rare ballistic missile tests—one that is truly a sign of the more uncertain geopolitical times we are currently living in.

A big thanks to everyone who helped in producing this article and to Yolanda Bejarano for the quick translation.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com