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Pentagon investigating false alarm about missile attack on U.S. base in Germany

Those who heard the alarm took it seriously, and warned others to take cover.

Updated: December 14, 2020 - 10:27am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Defense officials are investigating what triggered a false emergency alert over the weekend at a major U.S. military base in Germany, where people were urged to take cover against an incoming missile strike. 

"It's important that we find out what happened, for a lot of reasons," a Pentagon official told Just the News. "We don't want people getting needlessly alarmed, and we don't want them to be complacent in the face of a genuine alert."

The alarm was raised Saturday at the sprawling Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany, when people were warned via loudspeakers that an attack was imminent. 

Those who heard the warning took it seriously.

"I ran into the [base exchange] and started yelling at folks to take cover," one airman wrote on the base Facebook page. In another post he wrote: "When you hear this is not an exercise on the loud voice it makes our stomach knot up."

Commanders soon assured the approximately 55,000 people connected to the base that they were safe.

"Today, the Ramstein Air Base Command Post was notified via an alert notification system of a real-world missile launch in the European theater," officials wrote on Facebook on Saturday. "The Command Post followed proper procedure and provided timely and accurate notifications to personnel in the Kaiserslautern Military Community."

The launch actually was part of a training exercise, officials wrote in the post. "The situation is all clear."

Questions remain about the training exercise, and the warning system glitch that briefly created havoc on the facility that hosts a number of military organizations. Among other things, the base serves as headquarters for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, and is an installation for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Saturday warning most likely started with missile defense procedures at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, one military official told Just the News. Two possible scenarios could explain the false alarm, the official said.

In one scenario, the alarm was intended to be an exercise, but inadvertently wasn't labelled as such. "Someone may have sent across a training event, and forgot to include the part about this being a drill," the official said. 

In another scenario, a U.S. satellite known as the SBIRS (space based infrared system) came into play. The SBIRS detects heat that can come from a number of earthbound sources, such as fires, airplane crashes - or missile launches. In the case of a missile launch, the system notifies a command center at Schriever Air Force Base, and includes an estimate of where the missile will hit.

The weekend alarm at Ramstein occurred while Russia completed a weeks-long large scale exercise of strategic nuclear forces, to include firing intercontinental test missiles from a submarine. 

"It's possible the Russians launched a missile at a closed area in the ocean and were planning to shoot it down," the defense source said. "In the first few seconds it looks like it's headed for Germany. You very quickly get a better idea of its trajectory, and you can see where it's going. In the meantime, the alert has gone out."

Investigators currently are trying to decipher whether either of these scenarios - or any other - prompted the faulty alert.

The weekend alarm at Ramstein recalls a 2018 false emergency alert in Hawaii, when residents were warned that a missile was headed their way. The alert was sent by local officials, sparking 38 minutes of panic before it was cancelled. 

The Hawaii alert later was found to be the result of human error.

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