North Korea Hypersonic Missile Test Leads To West Coast FAA “Ground Stop Order”

North Korea tested a hypersonic missile system on Monday afternoon close to the western edge of Japan. At the test, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a domestic “ground stop order.” That order applied to aircraft in the western continental US and Hawaii.

While the FAA said that the ground stop order was not related to the North Korean test, pilots in the air at the time of the order reportedly stated otherwise. They have said that the order came after the Strategic Air Command’s NORAD advised the FAA there was a maneuvering vehicle in the air coming from North Korea.

Within 16 minutes of the first advisory message regarding the missile, NORAD issued another advisory that the maneuvering vehicle payload had splashed down east of Japan and that normal air operations could resume. Contrary to that report, the missile splashed down just west of Japan. The ground stop order affected Anchorage, Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles air traffic control centers.

Immediately before the ground stop order, NORAD notified the Los Angeles air traffic control center to clear air traffic near Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of the city on the Pacific coast. Vandenberg maintains Ground-Based Midcourse Defense interceptors capable of taking down enemy ICBMs.

While it is apparent that the government did consider the North Korean missile test as a threat, at least to air traffic in the US, it is not known what intelligence the FAA possessed and what decision-making processes led to the ground stop order. It is certainly possible that NORAD had no part in issuing the order, and the FAA interpreted the information it had to give the unprecedented demand.

Hypersonic missile systems present defense challenges that are much different than ICBM interception capabilities. Guided hypersonic missiles are virtually impossible to track with standard technology and evade existing interception methods. Ballistic missiles follow a standard parabola, while hypersonic weapons can travel in flight lines much closer to the surface and make lateral flight adjustments. They can select from multiple targets and reach their destination much faster than ballistic missiles.

Current public information concludes that China, Russia, and North Korea are likely far ahead of the US in developing the devastating new weapons technology.