October 22, 2013

Officers left doors open to nuclear missiles command post, officials say

The violations are seen as another sign of serious trouble in the handling of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

By Robert Burns
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

An Air Force missile crew commander stands at the door of his launch capsule 100 feet underground where he and his partner are responsible for 10 nuclear-armed ICBM’s, in north-central Colorado.

1997 Associated Press File Photo

click image to enlarge

Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, is responsible for the entire force of 450 Minuteman 3 missiles, plus the Air Force’s nuclear-capable bombers.

TheAssociated Press

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 officer lied about a violation but later admitted to it.

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 is napping.

In an extensive interview last week at his headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Kowalski declined to say whether he was aware that ICBM launch crew members had violated the blast door rule on multiple occasions.

“I’m not aware of it being any different than it’s ever been before,” he said. “And if it had happened out there in the past and was tolerated, it is not tolerated now. So my sense of this is, if we know they’re doing it they’ll be disciplined for it.”

It is clear that Air Force commanders do, in fact, know these violations are happening. 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 non-judicial 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.

Kowalski said the crews know better.

“This is not a training problem. This is some people out there are having a problem with discipline,” he 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. Upon questioning, the deputy crew commander initially denied the accusation but later confessed and said her crew commander had encouraged her to lie, Sheets said.

The crew commander received a letter of reprimand and was ordered to forfeit $3,045 in pay for two months, Sheets said. The deputy crew commander was given a letter of reprimand. Punishment of that sort does not require the officer to leave the service but usually is a significant obstacle to promotion and could mean an early end to his or her career.

The AP was tipped off to the Malmstrom episode shortly after it happened by an official who felt strongly that it should be made public and that it reflected a more deeply rooted disciplinary problem inside the ICBM force. The AP learned of the Minot violation through an internal Air Force email. The AP confirmed both incidents with several other Air Force officials.

Sheets said the Minot and Malmstrom violations were the only blast door disciplinary cases in at least two years.

The willingness of some launch officers to leave the blast door open at times reflects a mindset far removed from the Cold War days when the U.S. lived in fear of a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. It was that fear that provided the original rationale for placing ICBMs in reinforced underground silos and the launch control officers in buried capsules – so that in the event of an attack the officers might survive to launch a counterattack.

Today the fear of such an attack has all but disappeared and, with it, the appeal of strictly following the blast door rule.

Bruce Blair, who served as an ICBM launch control officer in the 1970s and is an advocate for phasing out the ICBM force, said violations should be taken seriously.

“This transgression might help enable outsiders to gain access to the launch center, and to its super-secret codes,” Blair said. That would increase the risk of unauthorized launch or of compromising codes that might consequently have to be invalidated in order to prevent unauthorized launches, he said.

“Such invalidation might effectively neutralize for an extended period of time the entire U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal and the president’s ability to launch strategic forces while the Pentagon scrambles to re-issue new codes,” he added.

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