Warnings and Lessons from Hawaii’s Mistaken Alarm

It is quite arguably a miracle that humanity has managed to avert widespread catastrophe by nuclear weapons thus far, as the record shows.

“This is not a drill,” announced the emergency alert, and for 37 minutes hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians and tourists were left to contemplate the possibility that an incoming missile might soon end their lives.

Now that we know the “ballistic missile threat inbound” warning was in error there are urgent lessons to review. As a former secretary of defense, my advice is we treat the Hawaii incident not as a false alarm but a real one. It highlighted an emphatically genuine risk that human error or technological failure—or some fatal combination of the two—could result in a horrific nuclear catastrophe.

From what we have learned about Hawaii—a single person clicked the wrong item on a computer drop-down menu—it is clear that the state’s alert system is in need of some basic improvements. Most obviously it should require a two-person instead of a one-person decision system. A two-person system, long established in comparable military systems, would significantly reduce (but not eliminate) the probability of such a mistake happening again. But if that is the only change made we would be learning the wrong lesson from this wake-up call.

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What happened in Hawaii is a new manifestation of an old problem. For decades, Cold War policymakers worried that a false report of missiles flying might prompt a leader to launch real missiles in retaliation. As a Pentagon official in 1979, I was awakened in the middle of the night by an Air Force watch officer who reported that his screen showed hundreds of Soviet missiles on the way. For a terrible moment, I thought a nuclear Armageddon was at hand. He quickly reassured me that it was an unexplained technological error. But that incident shaped my thinking for decades. What if exactly that same error had happened in October 1962, when as an intelligence consultant during the Cuban missile crisis I returned to my Washington hotel room each night convinced that nuclear war was imminent? We survived multiple Cold War close calls through a combination of good management and—to a troubling degree—plain good luck.

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The consequences in Hawaii were that people were terrified. They were terrified not only because they thought that they and their families were going to die, but because they had no idea of “what to do.” That could have led to heart attacks or to automobile accidents, but such results, happily, have not been reported so far.

That they didn’t know what to do is fundamental to a nuclear attack, especially if the missile is carrying a hydrogen bomb. One hydrogen bomb could kill essentially everyone in a city like Honolulu or Hilo, even if the residents took cover. So the “what to do” has to happen before the missile is fired. The way to save yourself and your family from being killed in a nuclear war is to keep such a war from happening. Once the missiles are launched, it is too late. And that is one important lesson we could learn from the Hawaii false alert.

But there is also a second lesson. If the attack alert came from our military warning system, the president would be faced immediately with an existential decision. He would have 5 to 10 minutes to decide whether to launch our ICBMs before they were destroyed in their silos.

If he decides to launch them, and it is a false alert (that could be caused by any of the reasons given above), there will be no way to call them back or abort them in flight. He will have mistakenly started World War III, a war likely to destroy our civilization.

The U.S. military has been aware of this existential problem for many decades, and it has taken heroic actions to lower the probability of a false alert. Still, there have been three false alerts, one of which looked very real and could very well have led to a launch decision. It is to the great credit of our military leaders and the system they have put in place that we have never had a mistaken launch order. But the danger is actually greater now than during the Cold War, with the emergence of malicious hackers and government-directed hackers.

So the primary lesson from the Hawaii false alert is that even with the highly capable system our military now has in place, we are still vulnerable to such an alert. And the consequence of a mistaken launch order is no less than the end of our civilization as we know it.

The article doesn’t mention reducing the sheer amount of nuclear weapons, but that of course is an important initiative.

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Reports: Pentagon Preparing for Potential War with North Korea & Developing New Nuclear Weapons

Accurate analysis requires calm. That being said, nuclear war must be noted as an existential threat to human survival, and there are various respected Cold War era analysts who say that these times presents a higher risk of nuclear war than the Cold War. The Doomsday Clock — measuring the likelihood of nuclear war and human annihilation — is at the closest to midnight that it’s ever been since 1953 for a reason.

The New York Times reports the Pentagon is quietly preparing for a potential war with North Korea, with the U.S. military launching a series of war games and exercises from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to the skies above Nevada, to a planned deployment of even more special operations troops to the Korean Peninsula during the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month. The planning for a potential nuclear war comes as President Trump has repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear strike against North Korea.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal is reporting the Pentagon is also planning to develop two new sea-based nuclear weapons. The report is based on a new Defense Department nuclear strategy review, which says the proposed new nuclear weapons would be to counter Russia and China. Last week, The Guardian reported the Trump administration is planning to loosen the restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons and develop a nuclear warhead for U.S. Trident missiles. This all comes as Trump has proposed building up the United States’ nuclear arsenal and has reportedly asked, about nuclear weapons, “If we had them, why can’t we use them?”

Here’s the link to the referenced New York Times article. This is a reference to a previous report showing that the Trump regime is planning to loosen constraints on nuclear weapons. On what can be done to stop nuclear war, initial recommendations are to raise awareness of the threat, support organized efforts to reform the nuclear launch approval process, and significantly reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Trump Regime to Loosen Nuclear Weapons Constraints, Further Increasing the Likelihood of Nuclear War

Nuclear weapons are an existential threat to human survival, and so any policy that increases the risk of nuclear catastrophe must be denounced strongly. The human species is quite fortunate that there have thus far been no nuclear attacks outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which were more than horrible enough.

The Obama-Trump nuclear weapons program has significantly increased “killing power,” as revealed by an important study in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and that’s all the more worrying with Trump’s mental deterioration in the White House.

The Trump administration plans to loosen constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop a new low-yield nuclear warhead for US Trident missiles, according to a former official who has seen the most recent draft of a policy review.

Jon Wolfsthal, who was special assistant to Barack Obama on arms control and nonproliferation, said the new nuclear posture review prepared by the Pentagon, envisages a modified version of the Trident D5 submarine-launched missiles with only part of its normal warhead, with the intention of deterring Russia from using tactical warheads in a conflict in Eastern Europe.

The new nuclear policy is significantly more hawkish that the posture adopted by the Obama administration, which sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defence.

Arms control advocates have voiced alarm at the new proposal to make smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons, arguing it makes a nuclear war more likely, especially in view of what they see as Donald Trump’s volatility and readiness to brandish the US arsenal in showdowns with the nation’s adversaries.

The NPR also expands the circumstances in which the US might use its nuclear arsenal, to include a response to a non-nuclear attack that caused mass casualties, or was aimed at critical infrastructure or nuclear command and control sites.

The nuclear posture review (NPR), the first in eight years, is expected to be published after Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech at the end of January.

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Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, said that the development of new weapons in the US nuclear arsenal was “dangerous, Cold War thinking”.

“The United States already possesses a diverse array of nuclear capabilities, and there is no evidence that more usable weapons will strengthen deterrence of adversaries or compel them to make different choices about their arsenals,” Kimball wrote on the Arms Control Today website.

He also cautioned against moves to broaden the circumstances in which nuclear weapons would be used.

“The use of even a small number of these weapons would be catastrophic,” Kimball said. “Threatening nuclear attack to counter new kinds of ‘asymmetric’ threats is unnecessary, would increase the risk of nuclear weapons use, and would make it easier for other countries to justify excessive roles for nuclear weapons in their policies.”