U.S. Officers with Nuclear Bomb Launch Keys Fell Asleep and Left Blast Door Open…Twice

Thursday, October 24, 2013
Officer shuts nuclear silo blast door (photo: DOD / US Air Force)

Numerous problems have plagued the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear missile silos, including a protective blast door twice being left open while officers were asleep.


Protocol for the service’s ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) force allows a silo operator (known as a missileer) to sleep during long shifts, but only as long as security procedures are followed, which include shuttering blast doors designed to keep intruders out of the classified facilities.


“One crewmember 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, according to a 2011 Air Force manual on ICBM weapon safety obtained by the Associated Press (AP).


An AP investigation discovered that on at least two occasions this year, missileers left open a blast door intended to prevent terrorists or other unauthorized individuals from breaching a silo’s underground interior. The door had been left open intentionally and on one of the occasions, once the breach had been discovered, one of the missileers lied about it. He later admitted to the violation and confessed to having done it numerous times in the past without getting caught. He was given a letter of reprimand, while another officer involved had to forfeit $2,246 in pay, in addition to receiving the letter.


“Transgressions such as this are rarely revealed publicly,” the AP’s Robert Burns reported. “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.”


Interviewed by AP, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, would not say if he had been aware of the violations. “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.”


Other troubles have impacted the ICBM force. These include low morale among silo personnel, a failed safety inspection, missileers removed from their posts for being unfit for duty, and the termination of the two-star general in charge of the force.


The Minuteman missiles being overseen by silo personnel are fitted with warheads “capable of a nuclear yield many times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945,” reported AP’s Burns.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Air Force Officers in Charge of Nuclear Missiles Left Blast Door Open (by Robert Burns, Associated Press)

Nuclear Weapons Site Reportedly Fails Security Tests (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)      

The 82-Year-Old Nun Who Breached U.S. High-Security Nuclear Complex (by Matt Bewig)


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