U.S. Air Force flunked defense of nuclear missile silo against simulated attack

Malstrom Air Force Base, Montana

Malstrom Air Force Base

Robert Burns reports for the AP, May 22, 2014:

An Air Force security team’s botched response to a simulated assault on a nuclear missile silo has prompted a blistering review followed by expanded training to deal with the nightmare scenario of a real attack.

The Air Force recognized the possibility of such an intrusion as more worrisome after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But an internal review of the exercise held last summer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana said the security forces were unable to speedily regain control of the captured silo, and called this a “critical deficiency.”

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The previously unreported misstep was the reason the 341st Missile Wing flunked a broader safety and security inspection. The unit, which has been beset with other problems in recent months, including an exam-cheating scandal that led its commander to resign in March, passed a do-over of the security portion of the inspection last October.

(For more on the 341st Missile Wing flunking the safety-security inspection, click here.)

The failure was one of a string of nuclear missile corps setbacks revealed by the AP over the past year. The force has suffered embarrassing security, leadership and training lapses, discipline breakdowns and morale problems. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered two reviews, still underway, to address his concern that the lapses could erode public trust in the security of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

The partially censored document obtained by the AP indicate that the security team was required to respond to the simulated capture of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile silo by hostile forces, termed an “Empty Quiver” scenario in which a nuclear weapon is lost, stolen or seized. Each of the Air Force’s 450 Minuteman 3 silos contains an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with at least one nuclear warhead and ready for launch on short notice on orders from the president.

The Air Force review examined why the security force showed an “inability to effectively respond to a recapture scenario.” It cited a failure to take “all lawful actions necessary to immediately regain control of nuclear weapons” but did not specify those actions.

A section apparently elaborating on what was meant by the phrase “failed to take all lawful actions” was removed from the document before its release to the AP last week. The Air Force said this was withheld in accordance with Pentagon orders “prohibiting the unauthorized dissemination of unclassified information pertaining to security measures” for the protection of “special nuclear material.”

The document provided no details on how the silo takeover was simulated, the number of security forces ordered to respond or other basic aspects of the exercise.

The prize for terrorists or others who might seek to seize control of a missile would be the nuclear warhead attached to it, since it contains plutonium and other bomb materials. A rogue launching of the missile is a far different matter, since it would require the decoding of encrypted war orders transmitted only by the president.

In 2009, the Air Force cited a “post-9/11 shift in thinking” about such situations, saying that while this scenario once was considered an impossibility, the U.S. “no longer has the luxury of assuming what is and what is not possible.”

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which helped conduct the Malmstrom inspection last August, has called its inspections “likely the most intense, invasive and critical” in the U.S. military. The agency says on its website that its drills are designed to “ensure everybody knows their job, the proper procedures – and how to react when chaos unfolds and the situation changes.”

When the Air Force publicly acknowledged the broader inspection failure in August, it said “tactical-level errors” had been committed during one phase of the inspection, but it did not say the errors were made by security forces. At the time, the Air Force declined to provide details, saying to do so could expose potential vulnerabilities.

The report provided to the AP said that because security of nuclear weapons is paramount, “the inability to demonstrate effective recapture/recovery TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) detracts from the Wing’s ability to conduct its day-to-day mission.”

The document describes in broad terms the nature of the inspection failure, its significance and its underlying causes.

It 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 Air Force document did not identify or otherwise describe the security team, but each Minuteman 3 missile base has “tactical response force” teams specially trained and equipped for nuclear weapons recovery.

Two years ago, the Air Force promoted these teams as a “secret weapon” ensuring nuclear security, saying they are provided “an extensive amount of unique training and are expected to perform flawlessly in whatever scenario thrown their way.”

Lt. Col. John Sheets, a spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which is responsible for the nuclear missile corps as well as the nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, said Wednesday he could not comment further.

“We cannot divulge additional details of the scenario or the response tactics due to it being sensitive information that could compromise security,” Sheets said.

He added that all “countermeasures,” or corrective actions, that were proposed in the review obtained by the AP have been accomplished. The only exception is a plan for more extensive practicing of security response tactics at launch silos, an effort that requires signed agreements with owners of the private land on which the missile silos are situated.

The silos are concrete-lined holes in the ground, mostly on remote stretches of private land whose owners have accommodated the facilities since they were built in the 1960s. They are spread across such large expanses that security forces cannot constantly watch every facility, although they are equipped with fire and security alarms.

Security forces are responsible for a range of protective roles on the Air Force’s three nuclear missile bases, including along roads used to transport missiles and warheads to and from launch silos, at weapons storage facilities and at launch silos and launch control centers. The Air Force operates three Minuteman 3 bases – in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming – each with 150 missiles.

USAF Col. Robert Stanley

USAF Col. Robert Stanley

Col. Robert Stanley, who was commander of the 341st Wing at the time, said that despite the inspection failure, “there was no question about our capability to operate safely and with complete confidence. Still, he said, more needed to be done to ensure that “some very young airmen” understand their responsibilities “much more clearly.”

Nine days later he fired the officer in charge of his security forces, Col. David Lynch, and replaced him temporarily with Col. John T. Wilcox II. In March, Stanley resigned amid a scandal involving alleged cheating on proficiency tests by up to 100 missile officers at Malmstrom, and the Air Force replaced Stanley with Wilcox.

USAF Col. John T. Wilcox II

USAF Col. John T. Wilcox II

In an AP interview in January, Stanley suggested there had been disagreement about how the security exercise was conducted during the August inspection. Without providing specifics, he said it was simulated “in a way that we’ve never seen before,” adding: “It confused our airmen. We were off by a matter of seconds.”

Photos added by StMA.

See also “Pentagon’s protection agency crippled by a ‘catastrophic network tech outage‘,” May 7, 2014.

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7 responses to “U.S. Air Force flunked defense of nuclear missile silo against simulated attack

  1. Reblogged this on Fellowship of the Minds and commented:
    More evidence that Keystone Cops are running this administration. With Obama as commander-in-chief, it truly is a miracle that America, though economically bankrupt and politically fractured beyond any semblance of unity, is still here.

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  2. Paul H. Lemmen

    Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.

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  3. This is not particularly surprising news. It is, rather, SOP for US military forces, for supporting US industrial activities, and for US military nuclear forces and industries in particular.

    In the 1980s, quote

    After relinquishing command of SEAL Team SIX, Marcinko was tasked by Vice Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, with the design of a unit to test the Navy’s vulnerability to terrorism. This unit was the Naval Security Coordination Team OP-06D, unofficially named Red Cell.[6] In 1984, Marcinko hand-picked twelve men from SEAL Team Six and one from Marine Force Recon.

    This team tested the security of naval bases, nuclear submarines, ships, civilian airports, and an American embassy. Under Marcinko’s leadership, the team was able to infiltrate seemingly impenetrable, highly-secured bases, nuclear submarines, ships, and other purported “secure areas” such as Air Force One, and disappear without incident. These demonstrations showed that a vulnerable military resulted from the replacement of Marine and Naval Military Police by contracted private security agencies often staffed by retired military personnel.

    Marcinko has claimed, among other things, that Red Cell successfully captured nuclear devices from United States Navy facilities, and proved the viability of plans to:

    penetrate and attack nuclear-powered submarines
    destroy subs by using them as dirty bombs
    capture launch codes for nuclear weapons aboard the subs by using mild torture techniques on personnel in charge of launch codes. Unquote.
    I believe Marcinko reported every single infiltration attempt succeeded (in his book).

    In the 1960s,

    I USN/USMC conducted similar exercises, using ordinary sailors and Marines, without resorting to the use of highly trained special operations types. Official but obviously bogus ID cards were issued – including one bearing the name and picture of Adolf Hitler and another bearing the name and picture of cartoon character Donald Duck (which is a fairly common name in real life, but of course the cartoon image should be a clue something is amiss). These exercises were tasked with planting phony “bombs” on US installations, in vital equipment or at locations that would cause massive damage from secondary explosions. The “bombs” could by “any object the size of a pen or larger bearing the English language label “this is a bomb” with a “time of detonation and date” written on them. The theory was that if security could not find and recognize a device labeled “this is a bomb” on a person not bearing proper identification, the facility was not secure. As far as I am aware, just as in the 1980s, no attempted penetration was ever thwarted by security forces. Including an unauthorized penetration of NORAD headquarters – outside the charter of the exercises because it was not a naval facility. Base “security” was known to be easily violated, and no effective steps were taken to change that.

    In the 1990s, among other professional duties, I was tasked with maintenance of computers at the Headquarters of Alaska Command. Separately, I had personal business (singing in choirs) on the base, and came to know numbers of the people who worked there. After several years, I learned of a regulation requiring visitors to the command be cleared before being allowed past the base entrances, and then escorted to the command building itself. Never mind I had declared my business properly every time, not once had the young airmen at the gate ever called to verify I was expected, or required an escort! The nominal rule was wholly and completely ignored. Just as I didn’t know about it, neither did those officially tasked with base security.

    Also in the 1990s, using the text of a formal Report to Congress, quote

    This CRS Report discusses China’s suspected acquisition of U.S. nuclear
    weapon secrets, including that on the W88, the newest U.S. nuclear warhead. This
    serious controversy became public in early 1999 and raised policy issues about
    whether U.S. security was further threatened by China’s suspected use of U.S.
    nuclear weapon secrets in its development of nuclear forces. unquote.

    In this case, the offending codes were maintained on physical devices which were stolen – either hard drives or portable computers – not all the details are fully disclosed.

    In the post 2000 military, quoting a Los Angelus Times article, quote

    In an unprecedented action in a time of war, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates simultaneously fired the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force on Thursday, saying that oversight standards for the U.S. nuclear arsenal had deteriorated on their watch.
    The immediate reason for the requested resignations of Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne was a report on the accidental shipment of nuclear triggers to Taiwan…

    The nuclear-trigger investigation — led by Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, the military’s senior official on nuclear safety matters — found that the Air Force had failed to focus on its nuclear mission even after last year’s high-profile incident in which a B-52 bomber crew unknowingly flew six nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana.

    end quote.

    Apart from common sense and good professional practice, the US has treaty obligations to insure the security of nuclear weapons, and related components and design documents. It is partly in compliance with both that numbers of small, widely deployed nuclear weapons were withdrawn from service since the late 1980s, at which time there were 30,000 nuclear warheads or “pits” (the core of a nuclear weapon) in storage in US facilities. The sheer numbers and their wide dispersal in many locations created many security problems at military and industrial sites. General Electric once lost no less than five hydrogen bombs in a single incident – only two of which were ever recovered. Yet the investigation was allowed to lapse without identification of any of the responsible persons, never mind their detention and prosecution. [Those weapons lacked critical nuclear fuel, but represented perfect examples to use to reverse engineer a hydrogen bomb from, and in theory could have been fueled for use.] Official US institutional practice about security has historically been poor – rating grade on the order of D on a scale of A to E. The UK, France, Israel and even PRC have far more secure practices, and usually do detect attempts to penetrate facility security. Only the Russians have had worse problems along these lines than the USA has. Gen Alexander Lebed, charged with an inventory of nuclear weapons, found more than 100 portable ones had been lost entirely! [Open source reports indicate these were sold in batches of 2 to 6 to various nations and groups by Russian criminals.]

    Long term security of a fixed site or ship (as demonstrated by actual exercises) is very difficult. Those on watch tend to become bored with business as usual. Those tasked to penetrate security can use their imagination to create a wide range of tactics. Nothing short of the actions of Secretary Gates (holding senior officers and civilian heads of agencies personally responsible) will suffice – and it is clear from this report that not even that was sufficient to reform USAF security practices. This problem is not limited to one service, nor to the current administration alone. The only instance of effective security I am aware of involves three layers of security – backing up perimeter gate security with dedicated on site guards (who are Marines not allowed to admit anyone not on an authorized access list) – backed up in turn by sailors required to be inside for some professional reason – assigned to watch duty during hours they are not doing their ‘day job’ – doing inside security. As a general rule, virtually all US industrial, intelligence and military bases permit someone who has gained access by any means to roam freely within the grounds (or the ship). Only the practice of internal guards dedicated to a single site, backed up by internal security on the site, has any chance of being effective in the long term. But this is very expensive and for that reason, unusual.

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  4. In the 1980’s, I was working as a USAF civilian on a major AF base, serving as the base disaster preparedness officer. We were in the middle of an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI), which is the major annual test of readiness for all major AF bases with nuclear capabilities. One of the tests involved bringing a simulated weapon on base and tasking the Security Police (SP) to guard it over night. I drove out to the site, looked at the SP setup and immediately called the Base Commander – who was at a party at the time. He came out to the site, accompanied by the SP squadron commander.

    I pointed out some major flaws in the SP setup, among others the lights were pointed in the wrong direction, the guards were inside the target area and unable to see approaching threats and there was nobody in the woods, etc. The BC listened and told the SP commander “Do it like Thurston says.”
    Both were well aware that I was a field grade officer in the Army Reserve at the time. The SP commander was VERY unhappy, but followed the order and redisposed his forces to provide real coverage for the site.

    Next morning, the ORI team chief announced that his people had been unable to capture the weapon. But he declared that the weapon was deemed “administratively captured” so they could proceed with the recovery and response activities the next day ( which were under my control.) The upshot was that both the SP team and my response teams were rated as Outstanding in the ORI, which is quite rare. Needless to say, the Base Commander was very pleased with my actions.

    About 10 years prior to this incident, the SP squadron had failed a similar inspection and had been de-certified. An Army infantry platoon was assigned to protect our Weapons Storage Area. They set up sandbags, barbed wire and defensive position, etc. and basically “occupied” that part of the base for three months until the SP squadron was able to get their stuff together and pass a follow-up inspection.

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  5. Thank you Dr. Eowyn for this important post. This is surely frightening!

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