Hawaii false missile attack warning … how’s that work?

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Atlas V launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, viewed from Goleta by Glenn Beltz on flickr.

The false missile attack warning message sent out recently in Hawaii caused a big kerfuffle. As it should. But the question on everyone’s mind is, “How could this happen?”

Well, I’ll state upfront, I don’t know. I wasn’t there, I don’t know their procedures, I’m not familiar with their training program.

Then why am I writing this article?

Because I have experience in the missile warning business. I worked in that field for over four years while a young lieutenant in the United States Air Force. And, I believe my experience may be able to shine some light on the pressing question, “How could this happen?”

Let me start by asking a simple question, “What’s the purpose of the missile warning business?”

Easy, warn of incoming missiles. Right?

Well, not so fast. You see after years and years of no missile threats, the mission begins to change. It happens slowly, so slowly no one notices it. Even the people directly involved in the mission don’t notice it.

Even if you ask them, “Hey, what’s the mission here?” They respond per the manual, “Missile warning, that’s what we do.”

I hate to be the bringer of bad news but, after many many years of never sending out a missile warning, the mission changes. The unspoken mission has replaced the real mission.

Now I will reveal to you the “unspoken mission.” It’s not glamorous, it’s not inspiring, it’s not useful. The new missile warning mission is as follows:

Never, ever, never, ever, never, ever send out a false report!

Sorry to be the bringer of bad news, but that’s the truth. The mission of every missile warning organization eventually comes to this stage.

Until it changes.

When does it change?

I was waiting for you to ask.

Here’s when it changes …

When there’s a real attack and nobody sends a warning!

That’s when the “unspoken” mission changes back to the real mission.

And usually it’s too late.

How do I know?

Where did I come up with this stuff?

Well, you see, I was there during the First Gulf War when it happened. A Scud missile launched and it was seen by three separate organizations and not one of them sent out a high speed warning message. All hell broke loose. The war fighters were up in arms. “Just send it Goddamint! We’ll can handle a false report, but we hate it when you don’t send because you’re afraid of making a mistake!”

We had “egg on our face.” We looked bad, but we were trying to look good. We accomplished our mission “no false reports.” But, by doing so, we let down the war fighters. We saw the missile but didn’t send out the high speed warning. OOPS.

So, you see, this kerfuffle in Hawaii could lead to a horrifying result. Okay, we may never see another false report sent out – mission accomplished – but, when the real one comes, will we get a warning?

My experience says there’s a good chance we won’t. So, I would suggest we be real careful how we respond to what happened in Hawaii. I would suggest we be willing to accept a false report now and then as the price you pay for getting the real warning when it happens.

I would highly suggest we keep the missile warning mission locked on to “missile warning.”

I would highly suggest we abandon the unspoken mission “no false reports — ever” and toss it in the scrape heap.

But, that’s just my suggestion based on my real world experience.

Note: If you want to read my missile warning story, check out my book, “Yanks in the Outback. A story of Woomera, South Australia, the Joint Defense Facility Nurrungar (JDFN) and the First Gulf War.

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