The text message arrived early on the morning of January 13, 2018: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
Luckily, the message was a mistake. An employee at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency clicked on the wrong option on a drop-down menu—selecting “Missile Alert,” rather than “Test Missile Alert.” Instead of a mushroom cloud, a cloud of recrimination and confusion now hangs over Hawaii.
This false alarm should prod Americans to take a long, hard look at the nuclear risk we face. While it’s tempting to increase the size of the US nuclear arsenal (“the button”) in response to security threats, it’s more important to address known issues in the command and control of the arsenal, and civil defense arrangements (“what happens after you hit the button?”).
Focused on North Korea. Some lawmakers are focusing on the specific threat from North Korea, and questioning why President Donald Trump hasn’t done more to counter the missile threat, perhaps by engaging in direct negotiations with North Korea. It’s not only North Korea that Americans have to worry about, though.
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).
Security at home. After the Cold War ended, public disinterest was matched by policy marginalization. The United States began to focus on securing loose nuclear material in other countries, and ensuring that any new investment in civil nuclear power overseas couldn’t be diverted to weapons uses. While these are genuine American security interests, the thousands of bombs stationed in the American heartland were not discussed. Even President Barack Obama, after calling for nuclear disarmament in a speech in Prague early in his first term, did not push for a major overhaul of US nuclear capabilities and posture.
A flurry of incidents (including the unauthorized movement and mistaken shipment of nuclear assets in 2007, and a cheating scandal involving nuclear launch officers in 2014) brought some attention to the safety of nuclear assets, but, overall, a different nuclear question captured Americans’ attention: the size of the nation’s “nuclear button.”
As a presidential candidate, Trump made comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons that so alarmed the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board that they moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. Shortly after taking office, Trump declared that he would preside over an expansion of US capabilities. In October 2017, he reportedly called for a nearly tenfold increase in the size of the US arsenal. More recently, he tweeted, in response to a provocative message from North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, that his nuclear button was larger than Kim’s.
The wrong response. A fixation on size—on being at the “top of the pack,” in President Trump’s terms—is misplaced. The threat to the United States is very real, but fattening the nuclear arsenal is not a rational response. The United States already has 100 times as many warheads as North Korea. Command, control, communications, and intelligence capabilities are as essential to deterring an adversary as the sheer number of weapons in the vaults. In other words, what matters is not the size of the nuclear button, but the technology and trained personnel that the button can summon.
Trading public insults with the leader of North Korea not only poisons any diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue, it also inflames the fears of citizens and creates an atmosphere of panic. In the absence of clear and credible information, ordinary people make decisions that, though understandable on the individual level, can cause collective catastrophe. For example, after receiving the mistaken missile alert, some Hawaiians reportedly abandoned their cars, leaving them parked on highways, to seek the shelter of tunnels. Such an impromptu parking lot would frustrate emergency responders or military personnel in the aftermath of a real nuclear strike on the island.
Residents of the United States need more to draw on than fading memories of the Duck and Cover drills that were popular at the height of the Cold War. As Stephen I. Schwartz and Deepti Choubey show in one of the few studies of spending on nuclear security, civil defense has been poorly funded. Civil defense must be reinvented to suit the needs of a new nuclear era. Reinventing Civil Defense, a project at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has begun working on the issue.
The half-hour of terror that the residents of Hawaii experienced should not be in vain. This can be a great opportunity to refocus on those aspects of American nuclear capabilities that deserve our attention.