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 have told The Associated Press.
Transgressions such as this 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 AP has discovered 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.
The officers, known as missileers, are custodians of keys that could launch nuclear hell. The warheads on the business ends of their 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, plus the Air Force's nuclear-capable bombers.
The blast door is not the first line of defense. An intruder intent on taking control of a missile command post would first face many layers of security before encountering the blast door, which — when closed — is secured by 12 hydraulically operated steel pins. 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 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 with some frequency. 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. 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 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.