Hawaii’s false ballistic missile alert was the latest reminder of the nuclear threat that North Korea poses to the U.S. amid the rising tensions and war of words between the two nation’s leaders.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” said the emergency system alert pushed to people’s smartphones statewide.
It was until a second message popped up 38 minutes later that people learned the missile alert was a mistake, later blamed on someone pushing the wrong button. But had the alert been real, a series of high-level assessments and decisions would have been made during that time in quick succession, perhaps with dire consequences.
The U.S. military officers at Pacific Command headquartered at Honolulu were able to immediately determine Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency had made a mistake and publicly delivered messages to that end.
Every moment of every day, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have satellites in high-Earth orbit scouring the globe for anything amiss. The so-called early warning satellites are designed to identify within seconds the location of the launch site, the missile’s trajectory and its potential target.
A constellation of school bus–sized satellites, known as the Defense Support Program, forms the backbone of the system. The spacecraft are armed with cutting-edge infrared sensors and instruments that operate at wide angles to detect heat signatures from missile plumes as they flash against Earth’s background.
The satellites are sensitive enough to short-range missiles launch, and are therefore capable of tracking a North Korean ballistic missile as it headed 4,600 miles toward Hawaii.