The Sum of All Fears: Why the Hawaii False Alarm Reminds Us of The Risks Of Accidental Engagement

As North Korean Tensions Moderate Ahead of Olympics, A New Threat Emerges: Accidental Engagement.

“I started running for shelter” one man told U.S. network CNN about his response to the false nuclear threat warning text sent to Hawaii residents on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The automated alert system was accidentally actuated by a routine drill at shift change that went wrong. During the alert, that included the message “This is not a drill”, hotel guests were evacuated into basement shelters, some people abandoned vehicles on the road and videos were posted of a man trying to open a manhole cover to seek shelter. According to a report in GlobalSecurity.org, U.S. Homeland Security Chief Kirstjen Nielsen made a statement the next day that it was “unfortunate” there was a false emergency alarm about an incoming missile in Hawaii, but said authorities are “all working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

It took 38 minutes for Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency to issue a statement saying the alert was an error. But even when the alert error message was delivered, tensions remained high on the island state. The Hawaiian island of Oahu was the scene of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the beginning of U.S. involvement in WWII on Dec. 7, 1941, and while few current residents of the island who survived that attack 77 years ago are still alive, the legacy of the Pearl Harbor attack permanently looms in the background of escalating tensions in the Pacific region with North Korea today.

The incident comes as relations between the South Korea and North Korea show possible signs of moderation ahead of the winter Olympics that begin on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang County, South Korea. North Korean and U.S. tensions remain high, but have not worsened in recent weeks. Some observers maintain that any evolution other than a worsening of relations between the U.S. and North Korea suggests improvement as Washington and Pyongyang continue their sabre rattling war of words.

But the risk of accidental engagement between the U.S and North Korea remains high, and these risks are titanic.

While the incident in Hawaii was a local level erroneous alert only, it typifies exposure to accidents that are inherent in any system where human involvement could introduce error. In the current political and strategic environment, the risk of accidental engagement represents the most tangible threat to any possible peace process in the region. Japan, North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea remain on a tenuous brink in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. This stand-off could easily escalate to a significant armed exchange entirely by error.

As with many strategic and defense realities, the late fiction author Tom Clancy was prescient of this risk. Clancy wrote this passage about a heated meeting between fictional characters, National Security Advisor Dr. Jeffrey Pelt and Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Andrei Lysenko, in “The Hunt for Red October”:

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity… Is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”

The risk of accidental near-nuclear attack has been consistent in fiction, but rare in reality. But it has happened.

On Sept. 26, 1983, an accidental alert in the Soviet Union indicated that the U.S. had launched a missile at the USSR. Then it got worse. The system reported a follow-on salvo of five U.S. ICBMs inbound toward the Soviet Union. To Soviet crews manning the early warning systems in the Oko satellite based Nuclear Attack Warning Center it seemed like a text-book U.S. first strike. U.S. rhetoric at the time spoke of “maintaining our first strike capability”, making the warning all the more urgent. The incident came only three weeks after the Soviets accidentally shot down a civilian Boeing 747 airliner, Korean Airlines flight 007, killing everyone on board. The aircraft had strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace and was mistaken for a U.S. spy plane. Real-life Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was on duty at the time, monitoring the incoming intelligence. Based on his analysis of the data Lt. Col. Petrov judged the alarms to be an error. He later said they did not exactly match the U.S. nuclear attack doctrine, so he did not elevate the alert. Lt. Col. Petrov’s human intervention was the first circuit breaker between accident and global calamity. He received neither reprimand nor award. Petrov died anonymously in May, 2017.

As with both real and fictional accidental engagements or near-engagements the common circumstances are large numbers of military assets from adversary nations in close proximity to one another combined with a protracted phase of elevated alert status. The stress of long periods at high alert levels combined with complex procedures for differentiating friend or foe are often set against a backdrop of dynamic rules of engagement. Accidents happen.

In November 2017, the U.S. Navy released reports on two serious accidents where Navy ships collided with other vessels in close proximity. On June 17, 2017 the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) was struck by the commercial container ship ACX Crystal in the narrow commercial shipping approach to Tokyo Bay. Seven members of the Fitzgerald’s crew died in the accident and her commanding officer was injured. In another incident only two months later the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, the USS John McCain (DDG-56), was hit by the Liberian flag vessel Alnic MC in the crowded shipping approaches to the Singapore Strait. Ten crewmembers of the USS John McCain died in the accident.

Collisions with U.S. Navy vessels at sea could spark an accidental engagement. (Photo: US Navy)

Even more foreboding is the July 3, 1988 incident in the Persian Gulf when the U.S. Navy Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49) accidentally shot down civilian passenger flight Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300-B2 airliner. All passengers and crew on board were killed. The crew of the USS Vincennes had incorrectly determined that the civilian airliner was an Iranian F-14 Tomcat that was attacking them. An investigation revealed the crew of the USS Vincennes attempted to contact Iran Air Flight 655 ten times before engaging it with two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, one of which hit the airliner and destroyed it. Some reports suggested the incident stemmed from psychological pressure the crew was under as a result of high alert status caused by other incidents in the region (one year before this incident, in May 1987, the guided missile frigate USS Stark had been attacked by an Iraqi Mirage F-1 jet and 37 American sailors had perished during the clash).

It is a short leap to imagine an incident that would be much more serious than this last year’s accidental collisions with merchant vessels or the recent erroneous warning messages being sent. There are currently three U.S. Navy carrier battle groups in the region. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) are all operational in the area around North Korea. Each vessel also has a significant support armada. Japanese and South Korean military vessels are also active in the region making for a very crowded patrol space.

The key to avoiding accidental engagements on each side will be adherence to rules of engagement and constant vigilance with navigation and communication. These are all standard protocols for all parties involved but fatigue and fear can degrade procedure in the real world. But perhaps the last circuit breaker between a tense stand-off and a rapidly escalating armed exchange are the responsible individuals with cool heads and an understanding of the true terror of war, accidental or not. We rely on them to maintain this tenuous peace.

About Tom Demerly 516 Articles
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.

18 Comments

  1. Does someone really think an EBS can be triggered by accident when you have to state the nature of the incident (natural disaster, missile attack etc.) before sending messages? There are safeguards. This looks a bit fishy to me.

    But at least a portion of the US population got a glimpse what it might be like to face annihilation. The population of Belgrade must have had a similar feeling when NATO planes were on their way to bomb targets in the city, even if it wasn’t a nuclear attack. War is no game. The TV pictures we see almost every day are mostly of events far away. Put there are real people dying there.

    • “The population of Belgrade must have had a similar feeling when NATO planes were on their way to bomb targets in the city …”.

      Nothing compared to the treatment they received, fear they felt, when the 2nd SS-Panzerdivision Das Reich entered and controlled (abused) the city. How many innocent civilians did they murder?

      • The Germans lost the war and then there were the Nuremberg Trials. I can’t remember something like this happening to the NATO war criminals that started a war based on lies.

        • Likewise, the criminals responsible for the Srebrenica genocide have been dealt with by the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia located in The Hague, Netherlands. NATO played no part in the massacre.

          • You refer to something that you don’t even recognize yourself. Double standards (again)!

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Service-Members%27_Protection_Act

            https://iacenter.org/folder04/myths.htm
            Myth #3. Clinton, Albright and the Pentagon generals were moved to action by their concerns about “ethnic cleansing” and human suffering.

            Reality: The U.S., Germany and other NATO powers played a key role in breaking up Yugoslavia in 1991-92, arming and supporting secessionist movements. It was the International Monetary Fund that demanded an end to “special privileges” for Kosovo in the 1980s. For 45 years after World War II, the many nationalities that made up Yugoslavia lived together in peace. In the civil wars, which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, there was much bloodshed and human-rights violations on all sides. The biggest single act of “ethnic cleansing” was the forced removal of 600,000 Serbs from the Krajina region of the former Yugoslav Republic Croatia by the U.S.-trained and armed Croatian military in 1995. More than 55,000 of these Serbs, who were resettled in Kosovo, are among the hundreds of thousands of people made refugees by NATO bombing and the conflict in Kosovo. (Julia Taft, Asst. Secretary of State on C-SPAN, March 29, 1999) The U.S. “concern” about removal of people from their homeland is very selective. This is not surprising: Virtually the entire continent of North America was “ethnically cleansed” of Native people to make way for the U.S. and Canada, two NATO powers. U.S. policy has supported, with arms and money, the removal of Kurdish people in Turkey and of Palestinians, East Timorese, Guatemalan indigenous people—the list goes on.

        • Can any trial and subsequent punishment ever bequeath parole to a nation that brought about the brutal deaths of over 50 million people? You carry no measure of moral authority here my friend. No measure whatsoever. You will forever be relegated to the role of silent observer. That is your only just punishment. May God have mercy on your souls.

    • Actually not. They are pre-scripted with a set of procedures ready to run. There were false alarms in the past. Don’t let your ‘HATEFULNESS” for the US lead you to false presumption. Here’s what it sounded like in 1971.

  2. It is time for the US to take Civil Defense seriously. And it’s time for Americans to give some serious thought as to basic preparations. Our country took a dim view on Civil Defense when every American city with a set population was going to receive multiple incoming of .25 to .5 MT warheads aimed at various industrial, military, and even population centers. If every city with more than 200,000 was going to be targeted in such a way, Civil Defense is debatable. There’s no help coming in such a situation. However, when only one 20 to 250 kt bomb is going hit, a population target and probably miss at that, then duck and cover, public fallout shelters, and private plans for evacuation or sheltering in place make a lot of sense. Duck and cover alone will save 10’s maybe even 100’s of thousands from blindness, flash burns, and injury from flying debris. If one city is hit, then all the resources of the nation will be available and capable of coming in to help. Lack of Civil Defense at such a scale is irresponsible. It seems most people in Hawaii kept their heads for the most part. And the press has it totally wrong. I saw a right wing news-blog take a family to task for descending into the street sewer during the alert. That was great thinking on their part. I think raw American response has already proven itself ready to make the next step and take basic preparations at the public and private level to prepare for a low grade nuclear attack.

  3. “The incident comes as relations between the South Korea and North Korea show possible signs of moderation ahead of the winter Olympics ..”.

    That’s what the North Koreans want you to think, but the reality of the situation is much more ominous – this coming to us via 38North:

    Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site: Significant Tunneling Underway at the West Portal

    “Recent commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site indicates that the North Portal, where the last five nuclear tests were conducted, remains dormant and that tunnel excavation has been stepped up at the West Portal. Throughout December 2017, mining carts and personnel were consistently present around the West Portal and there was significant expansion of the spoil pile. These activities underscore North Korea’s continued efforts to maintain the Punggye-ri site’s potential for future nuclear testing.”

    https://www.38north.org/2018/01/punggye011118/

    So while Kim’s Olympic contingent is skiing and dancing on the ice, his rocket and nuclear scientists are perfecting the art of hitting the United States, Japan, South Korea and Europe with a thermonuclear weapon.

    Don’t be fooled by any of these actions that speak to detente. They are nothing more than a clever ruse – a way for the North Koreans to play for time. Time they need to finish their nuclear noose. A noose that will be used to hang us! There is only one way out of this, and I have a feeling that the President, SecDef and military chiefs know it. They’ve all expressed as much. VK-day approaches!

    • Yeah the real question is why the north Koreans would need nuclear weapons for anything other than defending against us regime change?? Not like they have enough nukes to go toe to toe with the us nuclear arsenal. More lies by provocateur Leroy.

    • Kim never mentioned Europe. That’s just your imagination. He always said he will use nukes if the U.S. is attacking NK. A single EMP can do enough damage against targets that are not hardened and the costs to repair that would be far in excess what for example Katrina did. The U.S. is not even able or willing to repair what the last storm did to Puerto Rico. Half the population still doesn’t have electricity for example, 20 percent no clean water.

      • NATO and other nations were part of the UN combined TF that took part in the first Korean War. Those same nations – countries such as the UK, Australia, France, Greece – would likely rejoin if the Armistice was declared null and void (which in reality it already is). All would become possible targets.

  4. Since you bring up Clancy, I remember in some book (Bear and Dragon?) a cruiser shooting gown an incoming ballistic missile with a radar-guided SAM (after few near misses with IR-guided). I know this capability is available (its either aegis or that is a point defense, either way it’s after midnight so I’m not going to flip through them all til I find the answer) and you covered a controlled test shoot down near Alaska of an air launched ICBM early last year or a bit before. Does Hawaii (or a nearby base) have a standing asset with this capability? Was there an incidental posting of an asset with shoot-down abilities?

    Second and less related thread:
    Given the hardware, recent posturing, and response times in the area, has any sort of pilot scramble been confirmed? Even a particularly large atomic warhead, of the kind we believe DPRK to not possess, would not have a blast radius that couldn’t be out run quickly by ground or carrier launched aircraft. Was any sort of ‘elephant walk’ type launch attempted? Or begun before COs stopped the scramble based on NORAD confirmation of no launch?

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