Residents of the U.S. state of Hawaii began their weekend with warnings that a missile was heading toward them and to take shelter. It was a false alarm, but that did not prevent panic as Hawaiians and tourists dropped what they were doing and rushed to shelter. Disturbing though this incident was, it was also salutary, reminding citizens and officials of the very real prospect — and consequences — of conflict as well as the need for a trusted emergency management system if that awful reality were to occur.
At 8:10 a.m. on Saturday, cellphones across the state of Hawaii received an emergency alert that read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” It was repeated on some TV stations but sirens did not sound. The warning sparked panic among Hawaiians and visitors, with cars being abandoned on highways as drivers took shelter in tunnels and residents rushed to fire stations and tourists huddled in hotel basements and kitchens. Flights at the airport were suspended for nearly 20 minutes.
The alert was a false alarm. Within 15 minutes, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted there was no threat. For those who were not on that social media platform, it took 40 minutes to get the all clear. Police officers with bullhorns were dispatched to neighborhoods to spread the word that the threat was not real.
Hawaii officials blamed human error. An emergency management employee pushed the wrong button during a shift change, part of a routine procedure that occurs three times a day. Even the fail-safe device — a screen warns “are you sure you wish to proceed?” — did not prevent the warning from being sent by mistake.
Those same officials acknowledged the pain and confusion that was created, with Gov. David Ige calling the incident “totally unacceptable.” After acknowledging the system failures, they promised the mistake would not be repeated. A second person will be inserted into the warning process as one check.
Upsetting as the incident was, it is a vivid reminder of the reality of the tensions that dominate political dynamics in Northeast Asia. Hawaii is home to the Pacific Command, which will direct U.S. forces in the event of a conflict in this part of the world. Just like Japan, Hawaii is now within the range of North Korean missiles, which has prompted the U.S. to deploy missile defense batteries on the islands as well as upgrade warning systems. It is important that U.S. decision makers appreciate the reality of regional dangers, and not dismiss them as abstract or distant threats. If this incident reinforces that awareness, then those decision makers will better appreciate the risks involved and the possible consequences of rash or precipitate action.
The human failure behind this incident should also sober decision makers as they contemplate how crises will unfold. Far too often, discussions assume a crystalline logic, clarity of communications between adversaries, and flawless operations. Yet, given differences in cultures and political systems, and the mistrust that dominates relations in Northeast Asia, misperception is all too likely. Moreover, as this incident demonstrated, mistakes happen. The human factor — pushing the wrong button — can and will occur. (Automated systems are no more assuring: Tokyo residents only need recall the mistaken earthquake warning earlier this month, the product of a computer miscalculation.)
One lesson of this incident is that there should be shock absorbers to slow decision making and prevent mistakes from having disastrous consequences. This conflicts with the logic of militaries and nuclear weapons, which is premised on efficiency and mobilization — and in some cases, a tendency toward pre-emption, prevention or “first use.” This conflict is especially evident in dealing with North Korea, which fears a U.S. strike that would reduce or eliminate its nuclear arsenal. This episode should force analysts and policymakers to look hard at options and procedures to reduce reliance on hair-trigger alerts or launch-on-warning systems.
The incident also exposed a lack of planning and preparation at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The White House was uninformed of developments in Hawaii and even after Hawaiian officials conceded human error was at the root of the problem, administration officials were claiming it was “purely a state exercise.” Reportedly, the administration of President Donald Trump has not held a principals — Cabinet level — exercise to test how top officials would deal with a similar crisis. Such an exercise is needed to show Cabinet members how a crisis would unfold and the demands upon them and their agencies in those circumstances. It is vitally important that they all, especially the president, appreciate the enormity of conflict and the scale of the consequences. Last weekend’s mistaken button push in Hawaii should reinforce that message.
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