The terrifying lessons of Hawaii’s botched missile alert

“This is not a drill,” announced the emergency alert, and for 37 minutes thousands of Hawaiians and tourists were left to contemplate the possibility that an incoming missile might soon end their lives.

Now that we know the “ballistic missile threat inbound” warning was in error there are urgent lessons to review. As a former secretary of defense, my advice is we treat the Hawaii incident not as a false alarm but a real one. It highlighted an emphatically genuine risk that human error or technological failure—or some tragic combination of the two—could result in a horrific nuclear catastrophe.

From what we have learned about Hawaii—a single person clicked the wrong item on a computer drop-down menu—it is clear that the state’s alert system is in need of some basic improvements. Most obviously it should require a two-person instead of a one-person decision system. A two-person system, long established in comparable military systems, would significantly reduce (but not eliminate) the probability of such a mistake happening again. But if that is the only change made we would be learning the wrong lesson from this wake-up call. Such a false alert can happen for other reasons than one person’s honest error.