Air Force Security Failed a Takeover Drill at a Nuclear Silo

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 22 2014 4:21 PM

Air Force Security Failed a Takeover Drill at a Nuclear Silo

Mal-afb-2009
Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana

Photo by U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons

There are always concerns about the safety and maintenance of nuclear missiles, but unless you work at one, it’s kind of hard to evaluate what’s going on in those silos. Last summer the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana publicly acknowledged that it had failed a hostile takeover drill. But only now, through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Associated Press, is there more information about the incident, which the Air Force called a “critical deficiency.” Good to know, right?

During the “Empty Quiver” scenario—in which a nuclear missile is missing, lost, or stolen—security forces on the base responded to a (simulated) takeover in which one of the base’s 450 Minuteman 3 missiles was taken. With its FOIA request, the AP was looking to understand why the base’s security had had an “inability to effectively respond to a recapture scenario.”

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[The documents] said insufficient training was at the heart of the problem, beginning with a lack of familiarity among the security forces with "complex scenario" exercises. It also cited unspecified shortcomings in "leadership culture" and a lack of standardized simulations not only at Malmstrom but throughout the nuclear missile corps.
Among the corrective measures cited in the report: Arrange to hold recapture exercises at one launch silo among the 50 silos in each of the 341st's three Minuteman squadrons, using "realistic, varied, simple-to-complex" scenarios based on what the Pentagon calls its "local nuclear security threat capabilities assessment." Also, the Air Force is taking steps to more closely track lessons learned from each "recapture" exercise.

The commander of the 341st Missile Wing at the time of the failed exercise, Col. Robert Stanley, fired the officer in charge of security. But Stanley himself was later forced to resign amid a scandal related to hundreds of missile officers cheating on exams, as 60 Minutes recently chronicled. Stanley maintained, though, that his officers had failed the drill by only a few seconds and that it was presented in a different way than usual.

The AP also points out that at least two launch officers from the 341st Missile Wing are currently being investigated for alleged illegal drug use/possession.

Even with the documents from its FOIA in hand, spokespeople for Air Force Global Strike Command still wouldn’t comment to the AP. But the documents do show that when the drill was repeated in October 2013, it was completed successfully. That’s reassuring, I suppose?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

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