North Korean missile: Early warning systems first suggested it could hit US, causing temporary scramble

It was “ugly,” said a US lawmaker briefed on the launch. Defense officials “didn’t have a good idea of ​​his capabilities” right away, the person added.

Early telemetry readings – which can be inaccurate and are often discarded as more data becomes available – suggest the missile could pose a threat as far away as the Aleutian Islands off Alaska or the California coast, have two sources familiar with the matter told CNN. .

Within minutes, the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) dismissed those initial readings and deemed the missile posed no direct threat to the continental United States. The test weapon – which sources say was a less maneuverable version of a hypersonic hover vehicle designed to evade missile defenses – crashed harmlessly into the sea between China and Japan, thousands miles from the American threat.
But in those few moments of uncertainty, the situation escalated quickly enough that the Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of a routine interagency discussion whenever there is a missile launch of this type, has grounded some aircraft on the west coast around 2:30 p.m. PST. Monday for about 15 minutes.

The grounding forced air traffic controllers to keep some aircraft grounded, while briefly diverting others into the air, according to air traffic control recordings, but controllers were distraught when asked to explain to the pilots what had caused the grounding. Some controllers incorrectly referred to it as a national ground stop, which hasn’t been seen since 9/11.

The question, now, is what triggered that first emergency surge — and perhaps why the FAA reacted the way it did.

“What we see here is just the normal process of coordination and communication from which some decisions were made at the beginning that probably didn’t need to be made,” the ministry spokesman said. Defense, John Kirby, to reporters on Thursday afternoon.

NORAD insists it was the FAA’s call to issue the ground stop and that it did not issue a warning or alert following the launch of the North Korean missile.

“As a precautionary measure, the FAA has temporarily suspended departures from certain West Coast airports,” the FAA said in a statement Tuesday. “The FAA routinely takes precautionary measures. We are reviewing the process around this ground stop as we do after all of these events.”

The FAA did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNN on Thursday.

A US official said the ground stop was not communicated through the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, based in Warrenton, Va., and instead went directly to regional centers from the west coast.

Tuesday’s launch was North Korea’s second such launch in the space of a week. But the first, last Thursday, was far less sophisticated, South Korean officials said.

U.S. officials are still making their assessment of the most recent test, but analysts who closely follow North Korea’s weapons development programs identified the missile used on Tuesday as what is being called a “vehicle of maneuverable re-entry” – still a hypersonic hover vehicle that can change course after re-entering the atmosphere but has limited range and maneuverability compared to more advanced systems.

“It’s basically down,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “It falls in style.”

Lewis said it’s not unusual for detection systems such as radar or infrared satellites to have trouble determining a missile’s course in the first few moments after a launch.

“If it’s a regular old ballistic missile, they can usually calculate that pretty well, but you have to wait for the engine to stop firing,” he said. “That’s why you sometimes see errors, because you’re trying to calculate it before the motor stops, and if you’re at a weird angle, you might be able to see that it’s going up but not in which direction. .”

In any case, there is no doubt that the launch violated UN Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from ballistic missile activity. And arms control experts have continued to sound the alarm that Pyongyang’s weapons development program continues to pose a long-term threat to the United States and its allies.

US officials familiar with North Korea’s weapons development programs said Pyongyang’s efforts to develop hypersonic missiles came as no surprise – North Korea has publicly telegraphed its intention – even though some of the specific capabilities demonstrated by the missile launched on Tuesday were surprising. Those sources declined to specify which abilities were unknown.

In January last year, North Korea said publicly that it had “completed research on the development of warheads for different combat missions, including hypersonic glide warheads for new-type ballistic rockets. , and that she was preparing their test production”.

Yet after years of high-level diplomatic exchanges between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Biden administration has so far taken a relatively low-key approach to North Korea, even whether she continued to condemn Pyongyang’s tests.

CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.


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