Nuclear experts are warning, using some of their most urgent language since President Trump took office, that Hawaii’s false alarm, in which state agencies alerted locals to a nonexistent missile attack, underscores a growing risk of unintended nuclear war with North Korea.
To understand the connection, which might not be obvious, you need to go back to the tragedy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.
In 1983, a Korean airliner bound from Anchorage to Seoul, South Korea, strayed into Soviet airspace. Air defense officers, mistaking it for an American spy plane that had been loitering nearby, tried to establish contact. They fired warning shots. When no response came, they shot it down, killing all 269 people on board.
But the graver lesson may be what happened next. Though it was quickly evident that the downing had been a mistake, mutual distrust and the logic of nuclear deterrence — more so than the deaths themselves — set Washington and Moscow heading toward a conflict neither wanted.
The 1983 shooting down, on its own, might have passed as a terrible mistake. But the superpowers had only fragmentary understanding of something that had happened on the far fringes of Soviet territory. In an atmosphere of distrust, technical and bureaucratic snafus drove each to suspect the other of deception.
Moscow received contradictory reports as to whether its pilots had shot down an airliner or a spy plane, and Soviet leaders were biased toward trusting their own. So when they declared it a legal interception of an American military incursion, American leaders, who knew this to be false, assumed Soviet leaders were lying. Moscow had downed the airliner deliberately, some concluded, in an act of undeclared war.
That dynamic is heightened with North Korea, which is thought to have only a few dozen warheads and so must fire them immediately to prevent their destruction in the event of war.
“Today’s false alarm in Hawaii a reminder of the big risks we continue to run by relying on nuclear deterrence/prompt launch nuclear posture,” Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, wrote on Twitter, referring to the strategy of firing quickly in a war. “And while deterring/containing North Korea is far preferable to preventive war, it’s not risk free. And it could fail.”
Unlike in 1983, no one died in Hawaii’s false alarm. But deaths are not necessary for a mistake to lead to war. Just three months after the airliner was shot down, a Soviet early warning system falsely registered a massive American launch. Nuclear war may have only been averted because the Soviet officer in charge, operating purely on a hunch, reported it as an error.
North Korea is far more vulnerable than the Soviet Union was to a nuclear strike, giving its officers an even narrower window to judge events and even greater incentive to fire first. And, unlike the Soviets, who maintained global watch systems and spy networks, North Korea operates in relative blindness.
For all the power of nuclear weapons, scholars say their gravest dangers come from the uncertainty they create and the fallibility of human operators, who must read every signal perfectly for mutual deterrence to hold.