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Mistakes Hurt U.S. Nuke Security

Blast Doors

Air Force officials have noticed an unfortunate trend of officers forgetting to shut the blast door that protects nuclear-tipped missiles from intruders. Officers have been officially reprimanded twice this year for leaving the door open, but officials told the Associated Press that the mistake has happened undetected many more times than that.

According to official Air Force protocol, the door must be sealed if one of the crew members inside is asleep. If someone were to enter, he could gain access to secret launch codes and compromise the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The AP story quotes Bruce Blair, who formerly served as a launch control officer for the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force.

"This transgression might help enable outsiders to gain access to the launch center, and to its super-secret codes," Blair said. That would increase the risk of unauthorized launch or of compromising codes that might consequently have to be invalidated in order to prevent unauthorized launches, he said.

"Such invalidation might effectively neutralize for an extended period of time the entire U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal and the president's ability to launch strategic forces while the Pentagon scrambles to re-issue new codes,"

In both of the instances where the safety violations were reported officially, officers were punished through the Uniform Code of Military Justice and were given fines and letters of reprimand.

Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, told AP that the crews know better than to let this happen. “This is not a training problem,” he said. “This is some people out there having a problem with discipline.”

The AP article suggests the incidents are an example of a larger problem within the Air Force.

The blast door violations are another sign of serious trouble in the handling of the nation's nuclear arsenal. 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 problems, including low morale, underscore the challenges of keeping safe such a deadly force that is constantly on alert but is unlikely ever to be used.

Early this year, the Project On Government Oversight advocated for “comprehensive and legitimate change in the way we view and execute physical security at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities,” following a break-in at Y-12 National Security Complex by an 82-year-old nun and two accomplices.

Image from Flickr user Diefenbunker Museum.

By: Avery Kleinman
Former Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman At the time of publication, Avery Kleinman was the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Nuclear Weapons Complex Oversight, Defense, DOD Nuclear Weapons

Authors: Avery Kleinman

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