HONOLULU, Hawaii, January 14, 2018 – Here on Oahu, I have a beautiful hilltop view of Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field that affords me a stunning perspective of every ship that port calls and every aircraft that lands on our island. Unfortunately for me, it also means that I am within line-of-sight distance to an obvious primary target by enemy land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and submarine-based SLBMs and cruise missiles.
If Armageddon were ever kindled against the islands, it is no exaggeration to say that I would be instantly vaporized by fireball temperatures that can reach as hot as 100-million degrees Celsius at ground zero.
If you knew the truth, you would know the alarm was false
Yesterday, when Hawaii’s civil defense triggered an emergency alert that a ballistic missile attack was inbound to the islands, I needed only to look outside and keep breathing to know the alarm was false.
There’s an ironic peace of mind that comes with knowing that since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have become so overwhelmingly powerful that aside from picking one’s place of residence carefully, there really is nothing one can do once the dogs of World War III are loosed.
Understanding the odds
Little Boy, which flattened Hiroshima, was 15 kilotons, or equal to 15,000 tons of TNT. Fat Man, a more advanced bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki, had a yield of 21 kilotons. Today, these “strategic bombing” weapons would be considered “tactical” battlefield weapons, compared to Russian ICBMs which wield as big as 18 megaton (18,000,000 tons of TNT) warheads.
North Korea, which could possibly have warheads in the 100 kiloton or even 1 megaton range, are still far more powerful than the bombs used against Japan in WWII.
Modern missiles carry not just one, but several of these devastating warheads in multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) or maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) configuration. The question in modern nuclear warfare is no longer what to do “when the bomb drops” but when many bombs drop simultaneously.
As multiple warheads are often tasked to single targets to ensure destruction in spite of a defender’s anti-missile systems, knowing when and where the warheads will hit outside of sitting behind a radar screen in Colorado Springs is an exercise in futility for John Q. Citizen. There is truly no place one can hide in a real nuclear war.
If a nuclear exchange breaks out, one spot is as good as the next. Some warheads will detonate in orbit above the Earth, others will detonate at high altitude, and others will surface detonate, creating unpredictable effects. In war, and in daily life for that matter, your personal decision not to panic and wherever fate has you at that given moment will ultimately determine your survival.
Hawaii was never in any real danger
The alert we received in Hawaii yesterday told us that a ballistic missile (just one) was inbound. In 1983, Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov saw what he thought were five or six missiles of American origin on his radar screens, and in accordance with procedure, was ordered to launch ICBMs back at the United States. He refused.
When harangued by his superiors as to why he disobeyed, Petrov replied, “Because no one starts WWIII with just five or six missiles.” No one starts WWIII with one ballistic missile, not Russia, not China, and certainly not even North Korea.
I’ve heard it said that the false alarm could have started an accidental nuclear war. Nonsense. The civil defense system used to alert Hawaii residents is purely local and has no impact on the command and control of nuclear weapons. President Donald Trump, and more to the point, the U.S. Strategic Command, performed flawlessly as a defense ecosystem yesterday morning.
There was no missile launch detected, no reason to raise the alert status, no need to evacuate, no need for any statements or explanations.
A mistake was made
Here in Hawaii, Governor David Ige did an outstanding job correcting the mistake and holding a textbook “Mother of all Press Conferences”-style event which explained what happened and why it won’t happen again. Mistakes do happen, but real nuclear weapons were never involved, and command-and-control didn’t break down. The system worked, and Gov. Ige showed himself to be a praiseworthy leader in the midst of an otherwise regrettable mistake.
Some claim that Trump, who receives “unfiltered” social media and has a penchant for off-the-cuff tweeting, is a nuclear liability, so much that some representatives have introduced bills to limit the President’s ability to launch nuclear weapons.
The truth is that no one man has the authority to launch a nuclear weapon, not the president, not the Secretary of Defense, not even the crews manning the Minuteman III missiles, which require two keys to be turned simultaneously to the launch position to fire. When it comes to these matters, we need to let the president – whoever that may be – do their job.
The Russians and Chinese, though I have often criticized them for their aggressive nuclear posturing and threats of annihilating the United States if ever angered, should also be taken with a grain of salt. When it comes to their conventional military forces, they lack the capacity to defeat U.S. and NATO forces in nearly every conceivable present-day scenario, and therefore nuclear threats from these powers should be seen as a form of political propaganda. It is unreasonable to believe that Russia or China would launch nuclear weapons unless their very existence were threatened (see: Caroline Test) and that is simply not the case, especially under President Trump.
Eddie would stay calm
Hawaiians are familiar with the surfing motto, “Eddie would go.” In the case of yesterday’s missile scare, Eddie would stay calm.
Here’s a couple of things to remember:
- No one will launch an unprovoked nuclear missile attack on Hawaii like a “bolt from the blue” in a so-called “splendid first strike.” Nuclear weapons are weapons of extreme last resort, and even the North Koreans understand this concept. If a nuclear war were to occur, it would most likely be preceded by days or even weeks of intense conventional military conflict and massive political tension. (Worst case scenario, give yourselves 24 hours advance notice for nuclear war.)
- “General, you are listening to a machine … do the world a favor and don’t act like one.” Common sense should always have a say in how you process information. Yes, a text message that a ballistic missile is inbound to your state is somewhat disturbing, but one has to reconcile that with the fact that there have been no major threats, South Korea and North Korea are having face-to-face talks, and there’s no war.
- Don’t armchair admiral the crisis. People need you clear-minded and alert in any crisis, not just a nuclear one. Don’t add to the panic. Calm yourself and the others around you.Remember, no one actually said the missile headed for Hawaii was a nuclear missile; it could have been conventional high explosive, even a dummy warhead. A psychological phenomenon known as “scenario fulfillment” occurred yesterday where people automatically assumed the phantom missile was nuclear because that was what they were expecting.
- Last but not least, take a moment to watch the U.S. Army’s “Self-Preservation in an Atomic Attack” instruction video, which is quaint and in 50’s terms, but still relevant. Learn the facts for you and your family:
Everything worked the way it was supposed to yesterday, in spite of extraordinary circumstances. Don’t panic, get to know the real facts, and above all else, pray for peace.