The Rockets of Musudan-Ri: North Korean Ballistic Missile False Alarms

Cable news networks reported for thirty-eight minutes, the citizens of Hawaii lived in fear. Messages were broadcast ballistic missiles were inbound from North Korea to Hawaii. Mothers put their children in storm drains. One woman claims her husband had a heart attack because of the stress of knowing he was about to meet nuclear obliteration. All of these alarming messages turned out to be a false alarm. Someone pushed the wrong button in some Command Center. Really?

Watching and a listening to these broadcasts of nuclear annihilation false alarms bewildered me. I have been involved in ballistic missile intelligence collection and formulating war plans dealing with theater ballistic missiles in North Korea. Thirty-five minutes after coming into work on March 20th 2003, I was diving under my desk as sirens went off at the Combined Aerospace Operations Center south of Riyadh Saudi Arabia because Saddam launched missiles toward Kuwait.

In under a minute, we knew where Saddam launched the missiles from and what their target was. That information passed to an Army Patriot missile defense unit, engaging both missiles shortly thereafter. Since Desert Storm, the US has spent a lot of time and resources on how to find, fix, track, and engage ballistic missiles. Some of these tools are very cosmic, and some of them are just brute force. Here are my thoughts on these ballistic missile false alarms in Hawaii. The military has several tools to help locate, track, and target theater and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Surface warships watch off the coast of North Korea, Pave Paws radars in Alaska scan the Pacific skies, and interceptor missiles in California all work together creating a pretty good picture of ballistic missile activity. With Rocket Man Kim Jong Un’s continued rhetoric, we have really good intelligence on North Korean missile activity.

There is now an entire government agency whose sole job is defending the United States from missile attack. The Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, says it’s mission is “to develop, test, and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.” I have a hard time believing an entire government agency whose sole purpose is defending the United States from missile attack, didn’t know there wasn’t an attack. With all of the resources the Missile Defense Agency has in their tool kit, they must have known there were no missiles inbound to Hawaii. Did anyone in Hawaii think to call MDA?

Missile Defense Agency crest

Thirty-three US Navy Aegis Cruiser and Destroyer have the capability of tracking and targeting theater and intercontinental ballistic missiles with interceptor missiles in their decks. Seventeen of these ships are stationed in the Pacific. The Japanese Navy’s four KONGO-class Aegis Destroyers have the same capability. During the Iraq invasion, two Aegis destroyers were part of the ballistic missile defense of the Middle East region. One Destroyer steamed off of the coast of Kuwait City. The other Destroyer steamed off the coast of Tel Aviv, because we felt Saddam would once again launched ballistic missiles toward Israel like he had during Desert Storm. Interceptor missiles the Cruisers and Destroyers carry are capable of intercepting a ballistic missile in the boost phase of flight. The Navy has demonstrated this capability on numerous occasions. Navy Cruisers and Destroyers currently steaming off the coast of North Korea would have known immediately intercontinental ballistic missiles were not heading toward Hawaii.

USS Lake Erie firing SM-3 missile to intercept Ballistic rocket

The United States Air Force has an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform specifically designed for missile and space intelligence collection. It even has a nifty name, “the Darkwing Duck,” because the right wing is painted flat black. The RC-135 Cobra Ball mission according to the US Air Force fact sheet is to collect optical and electronic data on ballistic targets. Due to classification, I cannot tell you how the Cobra Ball performs these functions, but I can tell you it’s extremely accurate. Cobra Ball is really good at determining ballistic missile flight paths. If the North Koreans were launching missiles toward Hawaii, I’d make a hundred dollar bet Cobra Ball knew about it.

All of the information collected from these assets feeds into a command center on Hawaii. Listening to the audio broadcast, I heard Pacific Command gave warning there was a ballistic missile inbound. How could this be? Pacific Command has a Combined Air and Space Operations Center similar to the one I worked in in Saudi Arabia. There is an entire group in the CAOC whose sole job is monitoring ballistic missiles. I would think this group at the Hawaii CAOC is very keen on any North Korean missile activity. They would have known of a missile launch in a matter of moments. I have seen how this system functions on that Thursday morning in 2003. As I mentioned above, within 60 seconds we knew where Saddam had fired the missiles from and where they were going in the CAOC.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Tyndal AFB Florida

The US Air Force Weapons School as part of its Advanced Integration phase of training has a scenario where the students must plan and execute a ballistic missile defense engagement. It is based on the World War II Operation Crossbow, the hunt for German V1 and V2 missile sites in France and Belgium. In the years I taught at the KC-135 Weapons School, the students found the three to four mobile SCUD ballistic missile Transporter Erector Launchers out on the Nellis Test and Training Range. This is an extremely tough battlefield scenario, but when you have all of the tools available the US does to find, fix, and finish stationary and mobile missile launchers, the force found and killed the SCUDs on the range in three hours.

North Korean Ballistic Missile transporter

All of this has made me wonder if there isn’t some other backstory to this false missile warning. I do not believe we have the full story yet. I cannot believe somebody would push such an important button more than once causing the entire system to light up and send out messages to Billboards across highways. I still don’t believe there is such a system with one push an entire population gets a text message warning them of their impending nuclear doom. It will be interesting to see what the investigation finds about this false missile warning in Hawaii. From my experience, I have a hard time believing one push of a button caused 38 minutes of panic across the Hawaiian Islands without somebody knowing there wasn’t a threat.

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.