Murphy’s Law was written to describe how governments work. It was proved yet again on January 13 when an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management System sent a cellphone alert that said, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The alert was false but until it was corrected almost 40 minutes later it terrified millions of residents and tourists.
Hawaii’s liberal state government didn’t fire the still unidentified employee who so richly deserved firing. Instead, it reassigned him (her?) to different duties. The left — immediately and instinctively — politicized the incident and, of course, blamed President Trump who had as much responsibility for the terrifying alert as he did for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Hawaii’s Democratic congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard, was among the first to blame the president. She said that Mr. Trump was “taking too long” to defuse the North Korean threat adding, “He’s not taking this threat seriously. There’s no time to waste.”
The Hollywood gang, exemplified by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, found a way to shout its hysteria in anti-Trump Tweets. She wrote, “This Hawaii missile scare is on YOU Mr. Trump. The real FEAR that mothers & fathers & children felt is on YOU “
The worst, of course, was in a New York Times column penned by Max Fisher which stated that the Hawaii alert was evidence of how easily a nuclear war could result by accident. He argued that bold words in America’s defense, such as uttered by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and Donald Trump in 2017, made war more likely.
Mr. Fisher went completely off the rails by asserting that Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un remain “locked in 1983, issuing provocations and threats of nuclear strikes on push-button alert, gambling that their luck, and ours, will continue to hold.”
Mr. Fisher apparently believes that accidental nuclear war could break out any moment and, by implication, that one way to avoid it is to take our nuclear arsenal off what he believes is its “push-button alert.”
Let’s take a deep breath, set the record straight, and think about how our offensive and defensive nuclear systems are really managed. Fortunately, our nuclear arsenal is in the hands of calm, highly trained professionals. It’s always possible that humans will make mistakes, but no American president including Donald Trump could or would launch a nuclear attack on a whim.
We don’t know what nuclear weapons are at Kim Jong-un’s immediate and unquestioned command. But every North Korean missile, probably less than five seconds after it is launched, is routinely spotted by one or more of our Space-Based Infrared Sensors (SBIRS) satellites.
As Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine reported in 2015, the SBIRS satellites image the entire planet about every 10 seconds. Missile launches are detected almost instantly and within the first few minutes of its flight SBIRS determines the missile’s type, projected burnout, trajectory and impact point.
SBIRS reports instantly to military commanders and triggers — as necessary — communications up the chain of command to the president.
Ground-based and sea-based radars also track the missile shortly after launch feeding information to commanders, the president and to missile defense systems ranging from Standard missile systems aboard ships to the Ground-Based Mid-course Defense system which have medium and long-range missiles capable of shooting down any missile aimed at the United States.
To be sure, our missile defenses are not foolproof: one or more missiles could slip through and hit the United States with a nuclear weapon. But our offensive nuclear weapons aren’t governed by a “launch on warning” policy which means that a president will have at least a short time, and possibly a considerably longer time, to determine how America should respond to such an attack.
At a conference last November, Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, described how such events would be handled even if a president gave him an illegal order to launch a nuclear attack. He said, “I provide advice to the President. He’ll tell me what to do, and if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m gonna say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ Guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”
Gen. Hyten’s calm professionalism is common among our nuclear forces, but not those of North Korea and too many other nations. The primary restraint on Mr. Kim and his regime is their commitment to self-preservation. Someday, by error, insanity or intentional act, that may not prove sufficient.
As President Reagan said in his 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” That’s why we invest in missile defenses and must accelerate that investment to protect American lives, and those of our allies, from missile attack.
If any nuclear weapon were detonated in an American town or city, regardless of how it was delivered, life in America would change forever in terrible ways we cannot foresee. It should be our highest national priority to perfect our missile defenses to prevent that from happening.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”