WASHINGTON — Armed security forces at a nuclear missile base failed a drill last summer that simulated the hostile takeover of a missile launch silo because they were unable to speedily regain control of the captured nuclear weapon, according to an internal Air Force review obtained by the Associated Press.
The previously unreported failure, which the Air Force called a “critical deficiency,” was the reason the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana flunked its broader safety and security inspection.
The security team was required to respond to the simulated capture of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile silo, termed an “Empty Quiver” scenario in which a nuclear weapon is lost, stolen or seized. Each of the Air Force’s 450 Minuteman 3 silos contains one missile armed with a nuclear warhead and ready for launch on orders from the president.
The review obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request sought to examine why the security force showed an “inability to effectively respond to a recapture scenario.” It cited their failure to take “all lawful actions necessary to immediately regain control of nuclear weapons” but did not specify those actions.
The prize for terrorists or others who might seek to seize control of a missile would be the nuclear warhead attached to it. In 2009, the Air Force cited a “post-9/11 shift in thinking” about such situations, saying that while this nightmare scenario once was considered an impossibility, the US “no longer has the luxury of assuming what is and what is not possible.”
The inspection failure was one of a string of nuclear missile corps setbacks revealed by the AP over the past year. The force has suffered embarrassing leadership and training lapses, breakdowns in discipline and morale problems. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered two parallel nuclear reviews, still under way, to address his concern that these lapses could erode public trust in the security of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
The safety and security of nuclear weapons under military control is considered of paramount importance, and thus defense agencies perform detailed and rigorous inspections at regular intervals.
When the Air Force publicly acknowledged the inspection failure in August, it said “tactical-level errors” had been committed during one phase of the inspection, but it did not say the errors were made by security forces. At the time, the Air Force declined to provide details, saying that to do so could expose potential vulnerabilities. Security forces, safety officers, logistics teams, missile launch crews and others participated in the Malmstrom inspection.
Lt. Col. John Sheets, a spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which is responsible for the nuclear missile corps as well as nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, said Wednesday he could not comment further.
Full article: Air Force security failed nuke test (New York Post)