Early morning on Jan. 13, thousands in Hawaii panicked as they received an emergency alert reading: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Scrambling for safety, tourists in hotels were herded into basements, while Hawaiian residents took any shelter they could, hiding in buildings or under tables.
Fortunately, the missile warning was actually an error. Around 38 minutes after the alert was released, Hawaiian officials sent an All-Clear, announcing that it had been sent in error. Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, issued an apology after the incident.
“On behalf of the State of Hawaii, I deeply apologize for this false alert that created stress, anxiety and fear of a crisis in our residents and guests,” Ige said. “I can personally assure each and every resident and visitor that steps have already been taken by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to ensure that a situation of this type never happens again.”
With recent tensions between North Korea and the U.S, the threat seemed all the more real. However, this incident has brought to light a dangerous question: is the U.S. prepared to defend against a missile attack?
Realistically, the only type of missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland from North Korea is an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). They are the fastest and most powerful type of ballistic missiles.
To defend against missile threats, the U.S. has a system called Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). If a missile is launched, various radar sensors would be able to detect it.
A missile launched by North Korea would take around 30 minutes to reach the U.S. mainland. The GMD defense system would intercept the missile while it is outside the atmosphere.
However, since it became operational in 1999, the GMD has proven to be only about 50% accurate on average. The majority of the failure has been blamed on faulty thrusters on the GMD interceptors, which have been since updated. However, its two most recent testings were successful, marking an improvement in the defense system.
On the other hand, the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which deals with shorter-range missiles than the GMD, has a reported success rate of 100%; out of fourteen tests, all have been successful.
As of now, the U.S. is safe from close range missiles and has a somewhat viable defense against ICBMs, though its accuracy leaves much to be desired.