Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic revealed yesterday that about 50 Minuteman III ICBMs controlled out of F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming were sidelined on Saturday despite recent infusions of millions of dollars worth of upgrades to refurbish the four-decade old missile fleet and its support facilities. All of this comes just as the service appeared to have put its nuclear-related woes behind it. Here's an excerpt from Ambinder's report:
On Saturday morning, according to people briefed on what happened, a squadron of ICBMs suddenly dropped down into what's known as "LF Down" status, meaning that the missileers in their bunkers could no longer communicate with the missiles themselves. LF Down status also means that various security protocols built into the missile delivery system, like intrusion alarms and warhead separation alarms, were offline. In LF Down status, the missiles are still technically launch-able, but they can only be controlled by an airborne command and control platform like the Boeing E-6 NAOC "Kneecap" aircraft, or perhaps the TACAMO fleet, which is primarily used to communicate with nuclear submarines. Had the country been placed on a higher state of nuclear alert, those platforms would be operating automatically.Just last month at the Air Force Association's annual conference near Washington, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and his top nuclear officer Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz were saying how the service's nuclear forces were finally on solid footing to restore the rigor and zero-defect performance in the nuclear arena. In 2009, the service created Global Strike Command, led by Klotz, to bring back the sense of mission and discipline to the "nuclear enterprise" lost after the disbandment of the legendary Strategic Air Command in 1992.
The events that lead to the establishment of Global Strike Command were largely based on human error, with nukes accidentally being flown cross country on a B-52, ICBM launch facility officers falling asleep while on watch and nuclear triggers being flown to Taiwan by mistake. This latest episode looks like a technical failure. Still scary because, well, you have the word "failure" appearing in the same sentence as the word "nuclear." (Generally not a good thing.)
And better yet, this kind of thing has happened before, Ambinder writes:
According to the official, engineers discovered that similar hardware failures had triggered a similar cascading failure 12 years ago at Minot AFB in North Dakota and Malmstrom AFB in Montana. That piece of hardware is the prime suspect.Still:
"We've never had something as big as this happen," a military officer who was briefed on the incident said. Occasionally, one or two might blink out, the officer said, and several warheads are routinely out of service for maintenance. At an extreme, "[w]e can deal with maybe 5, 6, or 7 at a time, but we've never lost complete command and control and functionality of 50 ICBMs."Ambinder's piece goes on to say that the Pentagon believes the failure was caused by faulty cabling. Again, troubling since we've known about this for years and we're currently investing millions to upgrade the Minuteman III fleet and its facilities in an effort to keep them in service for several more decades.
-- John Reed