LAST JANUARY HAWAII’S 1.5 MILLION CITIZENS WERE PANICKED BY A DOOMSDAY ALERT BROADCAST ON THEIR PHONES, TVS AND RADIOS: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” WITH TENSIONS OVER NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR MISSILE TESTS AT A FEVER PITCH, MOST ASSUMED THE INCOMING MISSILES WERE NUCLEAR TIPPED. SOBBING PEOPLE SPRINTED OUT OF BUILDINGS THEY FEARED WOULD CRUMBLE TO THE GROUND. FATHERS AND MOTHERS STRUGGLED TO DECIDE BETWEEN PICKING LITTLE JOEY UP FROM SOCCER PRACTICE OR AMY FROM THE SWIM MEET. THE RELIGIOUS DROPPED TO THEIR KNEES AND PRAYED. OTHERS FRANTICALLY GOOGLED FOR INFO—WHAT WAS THE EMERGENCY PLAN FOR SUCH A CATASTROPHE? WHERE DO WE GO? WHAT DO WE DO? FIND A FALLOUT SHELTER OR SPEND OUR LAST MINUTES FUCKING?
OVER HALF AN HOUR PASSED BEFORE THE SECOND ALERT WENT OUT, CANCELING THE FIRST ONE. THE BUTTON HAD BEEN PUSHED BY A TECHNICIAN WHO BELIEVED AN ATTACK WAS IMMINENT. IT TOOK 38 LONG MINUTES TO RESCIND THE WARNING THROUGH THE EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM. HAWAII’S GOVERNOR, DAVID IGE, WAS INITIALLY UNABLE TO INFORM THE PUBLIC OF THE MISTAKE BECAUSE HE HAD FORGOTTEN HIS TWITTER PASSWORD.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, thousands of MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) missiles remain on hair-trigger alert worldwide, ready to “launch on warning” by order of any leader with a nuclear arsenal: Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Ram Nath Kovind, Mamnoon Hussain, Netanyahu…or maybe some Dr. Strangelove hacker who just wants to end it all. And the truly insane kicker: There exists no possibility of recall for most of these weapons. Once launched, it’s all over.
Considering all this, the Hawaii incident was not really a false alert. It was a wake-up call to remind us that we’re still sitting on a rotten old powder keg, but now we’re insanely stuffing it to the staves with brand-new and improved nukes. A new Cold War shows every sign of getting hot soon. The old Cold War taught us a hard lesson, but it’s one we’re quickly forgetting.
We’ve come damn close to slipping over the cliff edge and blowing up the world several times: In 1983 a radar screen in a missile command center outside of Moscow lit up, indicating five American Minuteman missiles soaring toward the Soviet Union. The duty officer, Stanislav Petrov, recalls, “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word launch on it. All I had to do was to reach for the phone to raise the direct line to our top commanders.”
The urgency to launch a retaliatory strike before the enemy’s missiles destroy your own is almost irresistible: Use ’em or lose ’em. The window of opportunity is narrow, perhaps 10 to 15 minutes. With President Reagan then publicly declaring the USSR an “evil empire,” top Soviet leaders seriously worried that the Gipper was planning a first strike—and here it was. Fortunately for us all, Petrov correctly guessed that it was a malfunction in the early warning system. Sun rays reflecting from cloud tops, recorded by a Soviet satellite, had caused the phantom missiles.
Three years earlier a networked computer system buried below the Pentagon, NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain command center and Site R in Raven Rock Mountain sounded the alarm: Soviet submarines had launched 2,200 missiles toward the U.S.! Bomber crews scrambled, and missile officers removed their launch keys from safes, ready for instant retaliation. Again, cooler heads prevailed, guessing that it was possibly a false alarm. The error was later determined to have been caused by a defective 46-cent computer chip. Other false alarms during the Cold War were caused by the mistaken insertion of a realistic training tape simulating an all-out Soviet assault, a Norwegian weather rocket, a solar storm and a faulty AT&T telephone switch.
In 1961 a B-52 bomber suffering mechanical problems accidentally dropped two hydrogen bombs near Goldsboro, North Carolina. A single low-voltage switch prevented detonation. In 2007 six nuclear- tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber, which was then flown cross-country and left unguarded on the tarmac for a staggering 36 hours before the error was discovered.
We’ve been very lucky in avoiding catastrophe so far, but how long will this luck hold out? Former Secretary of Defense William Perry states, “The problem of starting a war by mistake is probably more—greater today than it was during the Cold War because the things that can cause a false alert are not just a single person making the wrong judgment. It’s not just a machine here. Now we have the possibility of malicious hacking into the system either by a malevolent individual or by an unfriendly government.”
THE URGENCY TO LAUNCH A RETALIATORY STRIKE BEFORE THE ENEMY’S MISSILES DESTROY YOUR OWN IS ALMOST IRRESISTIBLE: USE ’EM OR LOSE ’EM. THE WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY IS NARROW, PERHAPS 10 TO 15 MINUTES.