America was embarrassed last week. The Operations Center for the State of Hawaii used their newly installed emergency warning system to get the word out that a ballistic missile was going to hit the islands. It even included the ominous words, “This is not a drill!”

Fortunately, it was completely false. A state worker hit the wrong button during a shift change (he was supposed to hit the “drill” button), and panic ensued. As mentioned, the system is new, having been conceived as a response to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s threats to attack the American state closest to him with his newest toys. He also threatened our territory, Guam, but Hawaii is a much more lucrative target. It is an actual state (vice a territory), it has several million residents (vice thousands), and while Guam has some U.S. military presence, Hawaii is the home of U.S. Pacific Command, the headquarters that would lead the fight in a war with Kim’s reclusive regime.

The Governor of Hawaii and his folks have my sympathy. They just put the system in place. Glitches are to be expected, but this was a big one. Not only was the alert false, but clearly, no one in Hawaii had any plan for what the population should do after they got it. It was informational at best. The people, citizens, and tourists did not have a clue where to go or how to react. One hopes that the giant “stink bomb” will produce both improved management procedures for the “buttons” and some detailed thinking about the civil defense actions that need to be devised, disseminated, and rehearsed. If that is not done, the warning would be of little use.

This is also a wake up call of a slightly different nature. It is clear that on a set of islands that are less than an hour away from North Korea (as the ballistic missile flies), there is darned little a population of several million (plus thousands of transient tourists) could actually do to prepare. What is the alternative? Simple: ensure no missile hits the islands.

Right now, Hawaii has some missile defense protection. America’s Aegis class ships in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula can hit Kim’s missiles in their boost phase (i.e., as they go up). Other Aegis ships around the 50th state can hit them in their terminal phase (i.e., as they come down). This is all good as far as it goes but not enough. Boost phase hits are tough, due to the time it takes to label the missile a real attack and getting permission to shoot.

For Hawaii, the terminal phase is the key. America needs to radically improve the chance of killing an attacking missile. The best way to do that is to add to existing missile defense assets in Hawaii. That can be done with already-existing, proven technology. U.S. Strategic Command must deploy several Aegis Ashore systems to Hawaii. These are similar to the systems on the ships but with special radars that make them even more effective because they don’t move around.
Additionally, they should immediately deploy several Army THAAD anti-missile systems with their radars, which would add a close-in, last-ditch set of shots should an incoming missile get through the Aegis layer. We own these systems now and have used them in Hawaii as a test bed. They work, and the infrastructure exists. There is no excuse for not using them.

The bottom line is this: the mess last week was unfortunate, but it should provoke preparations and improvements, not recriminations. Today, the system is inadequate. Some of that is the responsibility of the Hawaiian State Government, some belongs to the Feds.

Stop pointing fingers, and fix it.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More