The Debate

A Week of False Ballistic Missile Alerts: From Japan to Hawaii

What should we make of two disconcerting mistakes in Japan and Hawaii?

A Week of False Ballistic Missile Alerts: From Japan to Hawaii
Credit: Pixabay/ niekverlaan

It’s been a bad few days for cell phone alerts concerning ballistic missile launches. After an erroneous alert went to out residents of the U.S. state of Hawaii on Saturday — to their smartphones, radios, and televisions — that a ballistic missile was incoming, Japan’s state-run NHK broadcaster also sent out its own erroneous alert.

Mistakes like this shouldn’t occur, but they inevitably do, because humans and human-managed systems are prone to failure. NHK, however, succeeded where the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency failed: it issued a correction within five minutes instead of 38 minutes, sparing Japanese residents who’d been unfortunate enough to see the alert some panic. (The NHK alert was more than a news alert gone awry; it referenced Japan’s state-run J-Alert system, which covers everything from missile threats to tsunamis and earthquakes.)

On Saturday, hours after the alert was issued in Hawaii, I explored the ramifications for The Atlantic. As I wrote then, these types of false alerts can seriously reduce public faith in authorities that should otherwise command a high degree of trust. When the next North Korean ballistic missile flies over Japan or when North Korea potentially carries out a test into the Pacific Ocean, will residents of Japan and Hawaii take alerts seriously?

That said, I want to revisit an element of the Hawaii incident that merits some consideration. All things considered, the false alert going out as the result of careless human error (compounded by atrocious government software interface design) was the best possible explanation for what was a terribly unfortunate error. No external attacker was able to penetrate the system and issue a false alert, which is a relief.

The nightmare scenario, as I discuss in The Atlantic, is what many so-called “near misses” during the Cold War and even after the Cold War were made of: sensor errors. The United States is fortunate to operate a highly sophisticated network of sea-, ground-, air-, and space-based sensors to provide early warning of an incoming ballistic missile to most of the North American continent, but failures have been known to occur. That nothing of the sort occurred in the case of Hawaii bears underlining: this was entirely due to human error and poor software interface design at a state-level emergency management agency.

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There’s a crisis stability angle to this entire incident too. I recommend reading Max Fisher at the New York Times on how Saturday’s confusion may have been read in North Korea: “Had the turmoil unfolded during a major crisis or period of heightened threats, North Korean leaders could have misread the Hawaiian warning as cover for an attack, much as the Soviets had done in 1983.”