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Hawaii false alarm hints at thin line between mishap and nuclear war

These are Soviet Mig-23 Flogger fighter planes of the type which Pentagon sources say shot down an Korean Air Lines jumbo jet. Aircraft:Mig, See Also : Russia, Aviation, 09.01.1983
Published Jan. 14, 2018

Nuclear experts are warning, using some of their most urgent language since President Donald Trump took office, that Hawaii's false alarm Saturday, 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, Alaska, to Seoul, South Korea, strayed into Soviet airspace. Air defense officers, mistaking it for a U.S. 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 story illustrated how imperfect information, aggressive defense postures and minuteslong response times brought both sides hurtling toward possible nuclear war — a set of dynamics that can feel disconcertingly familiar today.

Ronald Reagan had taken office in 1981 pledging to confront the Soviet Union. Though he intended to deter Soviet aggression, Moscow read his threats and condemnations — he had declared its government an "evil empire" that must be brought to an end — as preludes to war.

Trump's White House has issued its own threats against North Korea, suggesting that it might pursue war to halt the country's nuclear weapons development.

The 1983 shoot-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 a U.S. military incursion, U.S. 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.

At the same time, Washington made a nearly perfect mirror-image set of mistakes — suggesting that such misreadings are not just possible, but dangerously likely.

Reagan, furious at the loss of life, accused Moscow of deliberately targeting the civilian airliner. He denounced Soviet society itself as rotten and in pursuit of world domination.

In fact, a CIA assessment, included in the president's daily briefing that morning, had concluded the incident was likely an error. Reagan appeared to have simply missed it.

The result was that the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly went to the brink of war over provocations or even technical misreadings. Often, officials had mere minutes to decide whether to retaliate against seemingly real or impending attacks without being able to fully verify whether an attack was actually underway. In the logic of nuclear deterrence, firing would have been the rational choice.

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 Saturday 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."

If similar misunderstandings seem implausible today, consider that an initial White House statement called Hawaii's alert an exercise — though state officials say it was operator error. Consider that 38 minutes elapsed before emergency systems sent a second message announcing the mistake. If even Washington was misreading events, the confusion in Pyongyang must have been far greater.

Had the turmoil unfolded during a major crisis or period of heightened threats, North Korean leaders could have misread the Hawaiian warning as cover for an attack, much as the Soviets had done in 1983. U.S. officials have been warning for weeks that they might attack North Korea. Though some analysts consider this a likely bluff, officials in Pyongyang have little room for error.

Vipin Narang, a nuclear scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggested another possible scenario, using shorthand terms to refer to the president and his nuclear command systems, which Trump has nearby at all times.

"POTUS sees alert on his phone about an incoming toward Hawaii, pulls out the biscuit, turns to his military aide with the football and issues a valid and authentic order to launch nuclear weapons at North Korea," Narang wrote on Twitter, adding, "Think it can't happen?"

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 U.S. launch. Nuclear war may have only been averted because the Soviet officer in charge, operating purely on a hunch, reported it as an error.

William J. Perry, a defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, called the false alarm in Hawaii a reminder that "the risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical — accidents have happened in the past, and humans will err again."

Trump and North Korea's leader, 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.

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