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

One US lawmaker with ever knowledge said that was “ugly”. The person added that defense officials “were not satisfied with her capabilities” right away.

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

Within minutes, US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) dismissed those initial readings and assessed that the missile did not pose a direct threat to the US mainland. The test weapon — which sources say is a less maneuverable version of a hypersonic glide vehicle designed to evade missile defenses — fell unharmed into the sea between China and Japan, thousands of miles away 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 has been a missile launch of this type, grounds some aircraft on the West Coast around 2:30 p.m. local time. The Pacific Ocean. Monday for 15 minutes.

The cease-fire forced air traffic controllers to keep some planes on the ground, with others diverted briefly in the air, according to air traffic control recordings, but the controllers were baffled when they were asked to explain to the pilots why they grounded. Some observers have mistakenly referred to it as a national ground station, something we haven’t seen since 9/11.

The question now is what triggered this initial rush of urgency — and, perhaps, why the FAA responded the way it did.

“What we’re seeing here is just a normal process of coordination and communication in which some decisions were made early on that probably didn’t need to be made,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday afternoon.

NORAD insists that the FAA’s call for a ground moratorium and that it did not issue any warning or warning as a result of a North Korean missile launch.

“As a precaution, the FAA has temporarily halted departures at some airports along the West Coast,” the FAA said in a statement on Tuesday. “The FAA regularly 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 CNN’s multiple requests for comment Thursday.

A US official said the ground station was not reported by the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, based in Warrenton, Virginia, and instead headed directly to regional centers on the West Coast.

Tuesday’s launch is the second such launch by North Korea within a week. But South Korean officials said Thursday’s first was much less complicated.

US officials are still assessing the latest test, but analysts who closely track North Korea’s weapons development programs identified the missile used on Tuesday as what’s known as a “maneuverable reentry vehicle” — still a hypersonic glide vehicle that can change course after Atmospheric re-entry but this has limited range and maneuverability compared to more advanced systems.

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

Lewis said it’s not unusual for detection systems such as radar or infrared satellites to struggle to determine a missile’s path in the first moments after launch.

“If it’s a normal 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 sometimes you see the bugs, because you’re trying to count them before the engine stops firing, and if you’re at a funny angle you might be able to see it’s going up but not in any direction.”

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

US officials familiar with North Korea’s weapons development programs say Pyongyang’s efforts to develop hypersonic missiles are not surprising — North Korea has publicly stated its intention — even if some of the specific capabilities demonstrated by the missile launched on Tuesday are surprising. Those sources declined to identify the unknown capabilities.

In January last year, North Korea publicly stated that it had “finished research on the development of warheads for various combat missions including hypersonic warheads for ballistic missiles of the new type, and was preparing for their test manufacture.”

However, 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 toward North Korea even as it continues to condemn Pyongyang’s tests.

CNN’s Natacha Bertrand and Pete Montaigne contributed to this report.

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