Air Force Loses Contact With 50 ICBMs at Wyoming Base

(Oct. 27) -Workers in 1996 perform maintenance on a U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM in a silo at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. A launch command center on Saturday temporarily lost its ability to communicate with 50 Minuteman 3 ICBMs at the installation (U.S. Defense Department photo).
(Oct. 27) -Workers in 1996 perform maintenance on a U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM in a silo at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. A launch command center on Saturday temporarily lost its ability to communicate with 50 Minuteman 3 ICBMs at the installation (U.S. Defense Department photo).

A technical glitch Saturday cut off for close to one hour a command facility's contact with 50 Minuteman 3 ICBMs at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Oct. 4).

The White House received details on the malfunction yesterday.

The weapons affected by the system failure represent one-third of the missiles at the Wyoming installation and one-ninth of the nation's ICBM arsenal, according to AP. Similar weapons remained online at sites in Montana and North Dakota.

The issue affected "communication between the control center and the missiles, but during that time they were still able to monitor the security of the affected missiles," Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician said. "The missiles were always protected. We have multiple redundancies and security features, and control features" (Gearan/Salcedo, Associated Press/Google News, Oct. 27).

Still, the glitch deactivated a number of protective measures, including systems to warn of unauthorized entry and warhead separation, according to the Atlantic, which broke news of the incident. The weapons, if called to launch, could still have been managed by an air-based system, the magazine reported (Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic, Oct. 26).

Workers discovered no signs of harm while examining the areas of all 50 of the affected ICBMs, which are included within the Air Force's 319th Missile Squadron, AP quoted Vician as saying.

No factors suggested the break in contact was deliberate, government sources said yesterday (Gearan/Salcedo, Associated Press).

"We have no indication that this was intentional," one U.S. official told Reuters, noting the possibility of a computer-based attack. "There's no indication of anything like that."

The problem appeared to result from the accidental disruption by a launch control center of communications connections from the missiles to all five control sites. All five centers had re-established contact with the weapons in about one hour.

"It was a hardware anomaly in the communications system that caused these signals to step on each other," the official said, adding experts were still working out the incident's details (Phil Stewart, Reuters, Oct. 26).

The ICBM command facility involved in the incident had previously faced other communication issues, one military official told AP without providing further details (Gearan/Salcedo, Associated Press).

The event was "a significant disruption of service," an Air Force official with knowledge of the incident told Wired magazine. “Something similar happened before at other missile fields.”

Still, the official reported "no angst" over the mishap.

"Every crew member and every maintainer seemed to follow their checklists and procedures in order to establish normal communications,” the source said. “I haven’t detected anyone being particularly upset with what happened.”

“Over the course of 300 alerts -- those are 24-hour shifts in the capsule -- I saw this happen to three or four missiles, maybe,” former Air Force missile command officer John Noonan said of the communication lapse. “This is 50 ICBMs dropping off at once. I never heard of anything like it.”

“There are plans and procedures available to deal with individual broken missiles,” he said, “but they are wholly inadequate to handle an entire squadron of missiles dropping off-line” (Noah Shachtman, Wired, Oct. 26).

U.S. strategists would have to take the incident into consideration, Reuters quoted Hans Kristensen, head of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, as saying.

"That really downgrades what you can expect the (nuclear) force to be able to perform in a crisis," Kristensen said, noting the event would be taken into account by systems used to quantify the U.S. nuclear arsenal's reliability (Stewart, Reuters).

The Air Force has a recent history of issues with nuclear-weapon oversight that include unknowingly flying nuclear-armed cruise missiles across the continental United States in 2007 and the accidental shipping of ICBM fuses to Taiwan in 2008. The problems prompted replacement of the service's uniformed and civilian leaders (Gearan/Salcedo, Associated Press).

October 27, 2010
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A technical glitch Saturday cut off for close to one hour a command facility's contact with 50 Minuteman 3 ICBMs at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Oct. 4).