Hawaii’s Nuclear Scare is Just the Tip of the Ballistic Missile
Hawaiians were in for a rude awakening one Saturday morning. An emergency alert was sent to the entire state reading “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK
IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” While the alert may not have been a drill,
it was certainly an error. The alert was blamed on an officer selecting the incorrect message template to send, resulting in it being sent to everyone, rather than just internally. This caused understandable panic among Hawaiians, but it also caused those familiar with ICBM systems to analyze the potential shortcomings of US Nuclear defense programs.
On the most basic level, the alert reminds us that many systems are controlled by humans, who are fallible. In this case, the wrong button was pushed, and then that incorrect message was confirmed. While these are small human errors, they can have a large impact when dealing with something as grave as nuclear weapons. Issues like this have long been a concern in the defense community; not just with defense, but our own nuclear weapons as well. There have been several reports of nuclear missiles almost being launched– one report accumulated thirteen well known instances where the United States was in danger of launching an ICBM. These range from the
absurd (accidentally sending ICBMs to Louisiana) to the terrifying (mistaken reports of Russian missiles, literally losing control of missiles, and bombs dropped on the United States). In the last case, Defense Secretary was quoted as saying “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted”. In many of the other instances, the realization or hesitation of one or two operators was the only thing standing in the way of a launch. While our technology has improved, some of these mistakes occurred as recently as 2010, and this week’s incident reminds us that caution in this area can always be increased.
However, it seems this caution is only getting increasingly harder. While incidents like the one in Hawaii lower the credibility of warnings about the nuclear threat, the American culture has been more broadly shifting away from fear of nuclear war. Despite sparring with North Korea, America has not reached anything close to Cold War era paranoia over this threat. While this may be good in some ways (we certainly don’t need a return of duck and cover), a diminishing concern for threats like these means that incidents like Hawaii’s can be more easily shrugged off.
The reality is that America’s nuclear defense system is simply not suitable for a superpower in the 21st century, and that attempts must be made to rectify the concerning amount of problems.
Otherwise, the next time Americans receive an alert about a missile, it might be real, and it might be our fault.