US nuclear missile crews caught sleeping with protective door open

Latest incidents of lax security at US ICBM sites highlight risks of a hair-trigger nuclear arsenal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 4:31am

Twice this year alone, US 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 both these instances - out of concern for the damage an intruder could cause, including the compromising of secret launch codes.

Transgressions such as this are rarely revealed publicly. But officials with direct knowledge of air force intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operations said that such violations had 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 violations are another sign of serious trouble in the handling of the US nuclear arsenal. The series of problems within the ICBM force includes 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 problems - including low morale - underscore the challenges of keeping safe such a deadly force, which is constantly on alert but unlikely ever to be used.

"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 centre," said Lieutenant General 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 defence. 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. 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 cameras and patrolled regularly by armed guards.

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

In neither of the two reported violations was security of the crews' missiles compromised, the air force said in response to questions, "due to the multiple safeguards and other protections in place".

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

One officer lied about a violation but later admitted to it.