U.S. Air Force personnel with responsibility for launching ground-based nuclear-tipped missiles twice in 2013 kept a blast door open in violation of security policy, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
The blast doors at the subterranean installations — where intercontinental ballistic-missiles are kept primed for firing — are not supposed to be kept ajar if any missileers inside are napping, in order to ensure an invader cannot seize the launch keys held by the Air Force officers.
U.S. missileers are drilled to adhere to all nuclear-security and safety regulations 100 percent of the time, because even small missteps have the potential to lead to catastrophe. The Associated Press was informed by officials with personal knowledge about the 2013 blast door violations that other similar transgressions have taken place and not been discovered.
“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,” Air Force Global Strike Command chief Lt. Gen. James Kowalski said in an interview. His command has charge of the Air Force’s approximately 450 ICBMs as well as its fleet of strategic bombers. The Minuteman 3 missiles are distributed evenly across three bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.
There are layers of physical defenses an invader would have to overcome before even approaching the blast doors.
The Air Force said in a statement that security of the ICBMs was not at risk following the April incident at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and May incident at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., “due to the multiple safeguards and the protections in place.”
Two launch crew commanders and two deputy commanders received administrative punishments for their roles in the incidents. One of the officers acknowledged leaving the blast doors open undetected on other occasions.
The Associated Press was alerted to the blast-door violations at Malmstrom by an official who wanted the incidents publicized out of a belief they showed just how problematic discipline among ICBM crews has become. As the Cold War fears of a nuclear holocaust have receded from the minds of Americans, so too apparently has the impulse among certain military members to rigidly adhere to all nuclear safety and security rules.
“This is not a training problem,” said Kowalski, who earlier this month was confirmed by the Senate to become head of U.S. Strategic Command. “This is some people out there are having a problem with discipline.”
The blast-door violations are part of a string of recent embarrassing incidents for Global Strike Command and its unified combatant command, Strategic Command. Earlier this month, the Air Force officer with responsibility for all ICBMs was removed from his post following concerns about problems with alcohol, and Strategic Command’s deputy commander was demoted and transferred to another position amid an official investigation into whether he gambled with fake chips at a casino. In August, an ICBM wing at Malmstrom that oversees one-third of the country’s silo-based missiles failed a safety and security inspection. In April, 19 ICBM launch-control officers were temporarily pulled from their assignments after they displayed low regard for security procedures during an examination.
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