A Troubling Series of False Nuclear Missile Alarms: From Hawaii, Japan, and the Pentagon
January 22, 2018
Lucy Steigerwald / Foundation for Economic Education & The Associated Press & Alex Ward / VOX News
On January 13, residents of Hawaii were terrified by a text message that said a missile was heading their way, and they should "seek shelter immediately." On January 17, the Japan Broadcasting Corp. issued an erroneous alert about a North Korean missile fired at Japan. On January 15, the Pentagon tweeted false report claiming that the US maintains "secret silos" for its nuclear warheads and has "B-1 bombers that can drop them from the air." Should the survival of humanity hinge on bureaucratic protocols?
Missile False Alarm in Hawaii:
How Wrong Buttons Can Wreak Havoc
Should the survival of humanity hinge on bureaucratic protocols?
Lucy Steigerwald / Foundation for Economic Education
(January 15, 2018) -- On Saturday at 8:05 am, residents of Hawaii were terrified by a text message that said a missile was heading their way, and they should "seek shelter immediately." Helpfully, the message also said, "this is not a drill." And it wasn't -- it was merely a stomach-clenching error.
Ten minutes after it was sent, it was canceled, and updates were broadcast over social media saying so. However, it wasn't until 8:45 that a follow-up text saying it had been a mistake was sent out. In the meantime, according to The New York Times and other reports, more than a few families huddled completely terrified, assuming that they were about to die -- or at least that there was nothing to be done about it if they were.
An Infamous Error
Hawaii, which is 2,400 miles from California and 4,600 miles from North Korea, is a lot closer to a potentially hot sequel to the Cold War than the rest of us and is understandably tenser, even without this kind of morning. Last year, they started monthly bomb drills thanks to the ongoing battle between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
The error was the fault of a still unnamed employee of Hawaii's state version of FEMA -- The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. According to the BBC:
"State Governor David Ige apologized and said it was caused by an employee pressing the wrong button."
And though this might end up a valuable push towards fixing a rickety system that managed to incorrectly inform people that they should duck and cover, but not officially say "hang on, not really" for more than half an hour, it is a truly unforgivable error. Now, two employees will have to okay any subsequent warnings, which certainly sounds like something that should have already been the case now.
Though much of the classic fiction about nuclear war -- including the 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove -- deals with a fear of automated nuclear war destroying humanity, or at least the system itself being unstoppable once a human "pushes the button," a notable thing about Saturday's mistake is how human it was. (Reportedly the employee in question had to do multiple confirmations of sending the message.) But it did demonstrate the power of one person to cause mass suffering through what might have been the longest half hour of countless Hawaiians' lives.
Brushes with Armageddon
The Cold War had many such scrapes, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also in the 1980s when tensions returned to critical levels between the US and the USSR. In both cases, Soviet individuals were the ones brave and human enough to not use the weapons at their disposal.
A sub didn't fire their nuclear-tipped torpedo during the US' blockade of Cuba thanks only to the vote of Vasili Arkhipov, who was second-in-command on a sub that required all three senior officers to agree to fire the weapon.
In 1983, a man named Stanislav Petrov took the time to gamble on a report of five incoming US missiles being a mistake. It was. Both of those men have been referred to as having saved the world -- arguably hyperbolic, but not as much as we'd like.
A terrifyingly mechanical system has more than once depended on human beings who were unwilling to take that final step into nuclear war. Humans who, in fact, have risked national safety and even world safety on not being the person to say fire.
But though men like Arkhipov and Petrov are a credit to us all, the more you learn about nuclear policy during the duck-and-cover days, the more amazing it feels that mankind has stuck around.
An Error-Prone Machine
Famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, 86, is best known for the Pentagon Papers leak. However, at the time, he also snatched thousands of documents on nuclear policy, because everything he had learned about it during his career as a civilian with tremendous access screamed that the public needed to know.
Ellsberg relates the nauseating details in his recent book The Doomsday Machine, an important tome that's as optimistic as it sounds. It's vital reading that reminds people that both poor planning -- such as the US under Dwight Eisenhower having no contingency in place for only bombing the USSR into dust, but it being a package deal with China, something that confirmed the rigidity of these planners as well as their blithely democidal tendencies -- and the potential for simple mistakes still run rampant in US nuclear policy.
Ellsberg noted in an interview with Reason that if it happened, a "nuclear holocaust will be one of the most carefully prepared for events in human history." He focuses on the Cold War, but there are still 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with around 10,000 of them military-ready, and nuclear powers are still butting heads as if the survival of humans isn't what's being gambled on.
This Hawaii mistake might, for good and for ill, encourage the federal government to put a contingency plan in place about how best to respond to a real attack -- or one that appears real. It is haunting that that might involve firing back at an offending country, or even doing so before the threat is confirmed.
Officially -- as far as any of us know -- only the president has that power, in one of the neat tricks of American politics that says Congress makes war, but firing a nuclear weapon doesn't count. In reality, Ellsberg makes the case that the presidential aide carrying the nuclear football is "theater." We don't know who can make the choice to fire a missile back, or who might make that choice in the most terrible moment, or what other errors run rampant in these warning systems.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, The Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. This originally appeared at the Foundation for Economic Education.
NHK Says Staffer Sent N. Korean Missile Alert in Error
The Associated Press & The Asahi Shimbun
(January 17, 2018) -- Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) said Wednesday that an erroneous alert about a North Korean missile fired at Japan was sent by a staff member who meant to transmit a different news flash. NHK denied any mechanical flaw and said it is studying preventive measures, though it did not give further details.
The false alarm Tuesday came just days after emergency authorities in Hawaii sent a mistaken warning of a missile attack to mobile phones across the state, triggering panic.
The erroneous NHK news flash had been prepared for a possible emergency, the broadcaster said, adding that transmission of an alert usually involves checking by multiple staff members.
The false alert said North Korea appeared to have fired a missile at Japan and that the government was warning people to take shelter. NHK retracted the mistake in five minutes, first on the internet, and then apologized on air and other formats.
NHK said it was not sure how many of the 300,000 followers of its "NHK News and Disaster Prevention" service saw the alert or if anyone followed the instructions.
The broadcaster said most of the complaints it had received were from people who learned about the mistake when they saw the correction instead of the erroneous flash itself. Some, however, were simply trying to make sure a missile was actually not fired.
Tension has grown in Japan over North Korean missile tests. NHK and other Japanese media generally alert each missile test, and the government has issued emergency notices when the missiles flew over northern Japan.
Japan is also stepping up its missile defense capabilities and is conducting missile drills across the country. Tokyo will have its first drill next week.
Pentagon Tweets Fake News about Nuclear War:
Risks Alarming North Korea
The US military tweeted out bad information
about its nukes. North Korea will notice
Alex Ward / VOX News
(November 15, 2017) -- The military command overseeing America's nuclear arsenal just made an embarrassing -- and potentially dangerous -- mistake. On Wednesday afternoon, it tweeted a link to an article falsely claiming that the US maintains "secret silos" for its nuclear warheads and has "B-1 bombers that can drop them from the air."
The problem, as experts almost immediately pointed out on Twitter, is that the US doesn't mhave "secret" silos -- you can find their locations on Google -- and the B-1 bomber isn't capable of dropping nuclear bombs.
And here's why this matters: Tweeting out the article only increases the chance of miscalculation between North Korea and the United States while tensions between the two nuclear powers are already sky-high.
Since there is very little communication between the two countries, any kind of message the US sends out is read by Pyongyang with great interest. And. as Van Jackson, an Asia security expert at Victoria University of Wellington, pointed out today, North Korea was already inclined to believe that the B-1 can carry -- and drop -- nuclear weapons. Now, it seems like the US military is confirming that suspicion.
That means the next time the US military flies the B-1 in a training exercise near or over the Korean Peninsula -- which it did earlier this month -- North Korea might think the plane is carrying nuclear weapons. So it's no wonder Jackson and Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT -- among others -- took to Twitter to denounce the tweet and the article as soon as they saw it.
Bad Communication Only Makes
US-North Korea Tensions Worse
Pyongyang and Washington are already in a war of words. Last Saturday, Trump took to Twitter to call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "short" and "fat." In response, North Korea's state-run paper Rodong Sinmun hit back, as reported by New York magazine:
Trump betrayed his true colors as an old lunatic, mean trickster and human reject during his one-night-and-two-days stay in South Korea," the editorial said. "He should know that he is just a hideous criminal sentenced to death by the Korean people. He will be forced to pay dearly for his blasphemy any moment.
That's a foreign newspaper, with tight connection to its government, stating it believes a sitting US president should be killed. Even though North Korea puts out many crazy-sounding statements, it doesn't make the tensions any less real.
That's why the US military should be much more careful about what it chooses to say -- or not say -- about America's nuclear arsenal. North Korea takes those statements seriously, and any mistake, regardless of the cause, can make a tense situation even worse.
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