While State of Hawaii officials work to unravel exactly how and why a false ballistic missile warning alert went out on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 13, it’s important that residents understand the context of the error. After all, deploying nuclear weapons in the United States dates back to the end of the World War II, and the systems designed to maintain and control them are enormously expensive and complex, which means they’re also subject to error. Two recent essays published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists–probably the leading publication on nuclear weapons policy–provide exactly the context that everyone in Hawaii should understand.
The first essay, published three days after the false alert, on Jan. 16, is an opinion essay titled “What America can learn from Hawaii’s mistake” by Karthika Sasikumar, a political science professor at San Jose State University. In it she explains that the false alert is a product of a nuclear weapons system that isn’t in the best of shape:
The regrettable accident in Hawaii should shine a spotlight on deficiencies in two important aspects of US nuclear capabilities: the command and control of the arsenal, and the civil defense system that would kick into gear if the United States were to be attacked. Over the years, these vital sectors have been damaged by budget cuts and official neglect. Mishaps have become more common, and morale among the men and women responsible for the nuclear mission has ebbed.
To some extent, this is because once the Cold War ended, the nuclear threat no longer loomed large. One of the immediate responses to the false alarm was from a 36-year old resident of Hawaii who wrote in the Washington Post that she “grew up in a world without nuclear threats.” Many Americans (and perhaps others too) have forgotten that even after the rivalry with the Soviet Union ended, thousands of nuclear warheads remained in arsenals around the globe. In the United States itself, there are around 4,500 warheads, of which approximately 1,740 are deployed. Even more worrying, around 900 of these are on hair-trigger alert, which means that they could be launched within 10 minutes of receiving a warning (which could turn out to be a false alarm).
The second piece is an even more alarming opinion piece titled “A reminder from Hawaii.” It’s written by Lauren J. Borja, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, and M. V. Ramana, the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the Liu Institute for Global Issues in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.
“The false alarm in Hawaii is one of those rare instances when the public gets a peek into the secretive world of nuclear weapons,” they wrote. “Within this world, errors and malfunctions of the kind witnessed in Hawaii occur in various other systems associated with the nuclear arsenal. How often they occur remains a tightly-guarded secret, but we know that they do happen.”
Look, these bombs, missiles and computer networks look dynamite on paper, but we can’t forget they were designed and are run by fallible human beings:
The early warning system is highly complex and involves thousands of components; a vast fleet of people are involved in its operations and maintenance. Components could fail or malfunction. Almost by definition, all these people are capable of human errors. The very limited amount of publicly available information shows that the system does experience errors and false alarms.
Information obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request reveals that from 1977 through 1984, the early warning systems gave an average of 2,598 warnings each year of potential incoming missiles attacks, with about five percent of these requiring further evaluation, according to Bruce G. Blair’s book, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War. None of those warnings was caused by an actual incoming missile. All of them were, by that definition, false.
What happened in Hawaii last week is horrible, but it’s not an aberration. And that’s a huge problem.
Photo of Minuteman I ICBM launch: U.S. Air Force