WASHINGTON - Air Force officers entrusted with the launch keys to long-range nuclear missiles have been caught twice this year 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 trouble 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 operations told The Associated Press that such violations have occurred, undetected, more times than in the cases of the two launch crew commanders and two deputy commanders who were given administrative punishments this year.
The blast door violations are another sign of 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.
The crews who operate the missiles are trained to follow rules without fail, including the prohibition against having the blast door open when only one crew member is awake.
The officers, known as missileers, are custodians of keys that could launch nuclear hell. The warheads on the business ends of their missiles are capable of a nuclear yield many times that of the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.
"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," said Lt. Gen. 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 written Air Force instructions on ICBM safety, last updated in June 1996, says, "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.
The blast door is not the first line of defense. An intruder intent on taking control of a missile command post would 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 security cameras and patrolled regularly by armed Air Force guards.