Share This Page

Napping nuke officers flout security measures

| Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, 7:33 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Twice this year alone, Air Force officers entrusted with the launch keys to nuclear-tipped missiles have been caught leaving open a blast door that is intended to help prevent a terrorist or other intruder from entering their underground command post, Air Force officials said.

The blast doors are never to be left open if one of the crew members inside is asleep — as was the case in these instances — out of concern for the damage an intruder could cause, including the compromising of secret launch codes.

Such transgressions are rarely revealed publicly, but officials with direct knowledge of Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile operations told the AP that such violations have happened, undetected, many more times than in the cases of the two launch crew commanders and two deputy commanders who were given administrative punishments this year.

The blast door violations are a sign of serious trouble in the handling of the nation's nuclear arsenal. The AP has reported on a series of problems within the ICBM force, including a failed safety inspection, the temporary sidelining of launch officers deemed unfit for duty and the abrupt firing last week of the two-star general in charge.

The crews who operate the missiles are trained to follow rules without fail, including the prohibition against having the blast door open when only one crew member is awake, because the costs of a mistake are so high. Sleep breaks are allowed during a 24-hour shift, known as an “alert.” But a written rule says the door — meant to keep others out and to protect the crew from the blast effects of a direct nuclear strike — must be closed if one officer is napping.

The officers, known as “missileers,” are custodians of keys that could launch nuclear hell. The warheads on the missiles are capable of a nuclear yield many times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

“The only way that you can have a crew member be in ‘rest status' is if that blast door is shut and there is no possibility of anyone accessing the launch control center,” said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command. He is responsible for the entire force of 450 Minuteman 3 missiles and the Air Force's nuclear-capable bombers.

The written Air Force instruction on ICBM weapon safety, last updated in 2011, says, “One crew member at a time may sleep on duty, but both must be awake and capable of detecting an unauthorized act if ... the Launch Control Center blast door is open” or if someone other than the crew is present.

The blast door is not the first line of defense. An intruder intent on taking control of a missile command post first would face many layers of security before encountering the blast door, which — when closed — is secured by 12 hydraulically operated steel pins. The door is at the base of an elevator shaft. Entry to that elevator is controlled from an above-ground building. ICBM fields are monitored with security cameras and patrolled regularly by armed Air Force guards.

Each underground launch center, known as a capsule for its pill-like shape, monitors and operates 10 Minuteman 3 missiles.

The missiles stand in reinforced concrete silos and are linked to the control center by buried communications cables. The ICBMs are split evenly among “wings” based in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Each wing is divided into three squadrons, each responsible for 50 missiles.

In neither of the two reported violations was security of the crews' missiles compromised, the Air Force said in response to questions from the AP, because of “the multiple safeguards and other protections in place.” But these were clear-cut violations of what the Air Force calls “weapon system safety rules,” meant to be strictly enforced in light of the potentially catastrophic consequences of a breach of nuclear security.

In the two episodes confirmed by the Air Force, the multi-ton concrete-and-steel door that seals the entrance to the underground launch control center was deliberately left open while one of two crew members inside napped.

One of the officers punished for a blast door violation in April at the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., admitted during questioning by superiors to having done it other times without getting caught.

Both officers involved in that case were given what the military calls nonjudicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice rather than court-martialed. One was ordered to forfeit $2,246 in pay for two months and received a letter of reprimand, according to Lt. Col. John Sheets, spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command. The other launch officer, who admitted to having committed the same violation “a few” times previously, was given a letter of admonishment, Sheets said.

The other confirmed blast door violation happened in May at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. In that case, a person who entered the capsule to do maintenance work realized that the deputy crew commander was asleep with the door open and reported the violation to superiors.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.