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Members of the 6th Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Team from MacDill AFB in Florida, assist local authorities with the handling and disposal of a French-made Matra air-to-air missile discovered at nearby Lakeland Linder Airport on Friday, August 14, 2020. (Photo: MacDill AFB Released).

It reads like a chapter torn from a Tom Clancy novel, a live French-built Matra Super 530 short to medium range air-to-air missile turned up mysteriously at the Lakeland-Linder Airport southwest of Lakeland in Polk County, Florida last Friday, August 14, 2020.

The missile was discovered by an employee of Draken International, a privately-owned contract adversary simulation company that provides fighter jets, pilots and support crews to act as adversaries to U.S. and allied air arms in training exercises.

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The discovery of the Matra air-to-air missile at Lakeland Linder Airport on Friday raises questions about how the weapon was able to enter the U.S. undetected. (Photo: MacDill AFB Released)

But how the missile got to Florida remains a mystery.

Draken International is headquartered at the Florida airport and also operates from Nevada’s Nellis AFB, where the Air Force maintains an adversary simulation or “Aggressor” unit.

Last Friday’s discovery of the missile is oddly reminiscent of a similar incident in Italy on July 15, 2019 when elite General Investigations and Special Operations Division operatives of the Italian State Police raided a neo-Nazi sympathizer cell with weapons stored in a warehouse near Voghera-Rivanazzano Terme airport, in northern Italy. Subsequent reports from Israeli sources said there was, “No reason to believe there was an active plot to use the arms.” An Italian language report published on nextquotidiano.it said the missile seized in the Italian raid did not have a warhead. However, the appearance of a long-range air-to-air guided missile that had somehow been smuggled into first Italy and additionally the United States while remaining undetected is unusual.

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Members of an elite Italian special police unit pose with a similar Matra Super 530 missile seized in Italy just over a year ago on July 15, 2019. (Photo: ANSA via TheAviationist.com)

The Matra Super 530 remains in service with France and Peru and a number of Middle Eastern air arms. The missile is most commonly seen on the Dassault Mirage F1. Interestingly, Draken International also operates the Dassault Mirage F1 aircraft in their opposing force simulation role.

Officials of Draken International released a statement following the incident that read, “Draken International, in the process of evaluating arriving shipments, discovered something questionable and potentially explosive. Adhering to the explosive safety rule of exposing the minimum amount of people for the minimum amount of time to a potential explosive hazard, the decision was made to evacuate the facility and its surrounding neighbors and contact appropriate authorities. Draken takes its role in the community seriously and always wants to insure it performs safe and reliable operations.”

Markings on the missile container indicated it may have originated from the Royal Jordanian Air Force. The lot dates back to 1982 (as compared to the Italian one that was dated 1983).

The Mirage F1s in service with Draken International were most recently purchased from the Spanish Air Force according to a March 27, 2018, media release by Draken International. The company purchased 22 Mirage F1M and F1B aircraft “in an effort to enhance adversary services for its U.S. Department of Defense and allied nation customers”.

Once this latest mystery Matra Super 530 missile was discovered by Draken International employees, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit and the Lakeland Fire Department were notified. Nearby MacDill AFB issued a statement on social media that said, “This weekend we received a call that a contractor at Lakeland Linder Airport had discovered a guided missile. Our 6th EOD team helped secure it with the help of ATF, the Lakeland Fire Department, and our 6th LRS team who provide a flatbed semi for transportation. It [the missile] is currently sitting in a munition storage facility on base awaiting proper disposal”.

“It was live, but unarmed,” an Air Force public affairs officer told the Military TimesThe missile was “like having a gun with a bullet in chamber, but on safety,” that official elaborated. “Someone would have to arm the missile to fire it.”

But while the fate of the newly discovered mystery-missile is now decided (it should be disposed at MacDill AFB), its origin remains a mystery that seems to have walked off the early pages of a military techno-thriller. To find out how the missile made its way to Florida from Jordan (or Qatar, as some other sources suggest) we’ll apparently have to wait for the next chapter in this developing plot.