A submarine test-fired a missile off Florida’s coast Tuesday night. It happens more often than you might think

Chris Perkins, South Florida Sun Sentinel
·3 min read

People who couldn’t identify a bright, flying object in the sky off Florida’s coast Tuesday night took to social media wondering if we were being invaded by inhabitants of another world.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy identified the unidentified flying object: It was a missile test-fired from a nuclear-powered submarine.

“Navy Strategic Systems Programs conducted a scheduled Trident II (D5) missile test flight at sea from an Ohio Class SSBN, in the Eastern Range off the east coast of Florida, on February 9th, 2021,” it said in an email.

But that raises questions about how frequently missiles are test-fired off the Florida coast, and how many subs are lurking near beachgoers?

It turns out that submarine sightings aren’t unusual off Florida’s east coast. But, apparently, the missile test-firings are quite a sight.

“It’s really interesting to actually see the firings because they don’t fire underwater,” said Dr. Robert G. Williscroft, an author and retired Navy submariner who has spent 22 months in the submerged vessels. “They are launched with a large air bubble. They come flying up out of the water and what you then see is a spin, tilt, fire.”

The South Florida Sun Sentinel has documented numerous submarine sightings throughout the years. The Navy had a training ground south of Port Everglades (a reporter could not confirm if the site was still being used) and sub sightings near Dania Beach have been fairly common.

In fact, in February 1993, the USS Memphis was stuck on a reef in 24 feet of water for about 90 minutes just south of the Dania Beach fishing pier until it was freed by the rising tide.

The Navy’s submarine program is highly secret, so it will not say how many of the boats are off Florida’s coast at any given time, or what they’re doing. It said Tuesday’s test was “part of a scheduled, ongoing system evaluation test. Launches are conducted on a frequent, recurring basis to ensure the continued reliability of the system.”

Information on test missiles are classified before launches.

The Navy still operates the Naval Ordnance Test Unit (NOTU) at Cape Canaveral. Its mission, according to its website, is to serve the county “by supporting and testing sea-based weapons systems in a safe environment.”

The website goes on to say “the command directly supports the mission capability and readiness of the United States Navy’s Trident Submarines as well as the Fleet Ballistic Missile program of the United Kingdom. NOTU operates the Navy Port at Port Canaveral, supporting submarines and surface ships of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and foreign navies and assets of the Military Sealift Command.”

Williscroft, who has spent three years in the Arctic ice patch and one year at the South Pole doing research, wrote a three-book series led by “Operation Ivy Bells: A Novel of the Cold War” and followed by “Operation Ice Breaker.” The final installment is set for release in two weeks.

Williscroft said the Navy has missile test-firing locations off Florida on the east coast and Washington on the west coast. He said missile tests are conducted with dummy warheads and every submarine that carries ballistic missiles test fires one or two every two- to three-year cycle.

Williscroft also said he doubts there’s more than one submarine lurking off Florida’s coast.

“At any given time, it’s unlikely that you would have more than one fleet ballistic missile submarine in that area simply because we need to have those guys on patrol,” he said.

Williscroft said it’s not unusual to see submarines surface near South Florida and previous news coverage has documented such sightings.

“The missile is fired from underwater and often the submarine will surface after that in order to work with surface vessels that might be in the vicinity that are part of the tracking party,” he said. “But normally, operationally, no, they don’t surface. But off of the coast of Florida you’re going to see them from time to time because they’re doing things that require surfacing.”