Probe Into ICBM Glitch To Take Months

October 29, 2010

By: Megan Scully

National Journal, 10/29

WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s No. 2 officer yesterday said that the military has launched a months-long investigation into the engineering failure that took 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles temporarily off-line at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming on Saturday.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Gen. Carrol Chandler said that the incident was “a fairly difficult problem to troubleshoot and solve” and lauded the base for doing a “very, very good job” to get the squadron of ICBMs back online in less than an hour.

Nonetheless, the Air Force, Joint Staff, U.S. Strategic Command and others in the military are launching an in-depth review of how the incident could have occurred and how best to prevent a recurrence.

On Saturday, the missiles dropped to “LF Down” status, meaning that controllers could no longer communicate with the missiles themselves. Various security protocols, including intrusion and warhead separation alarms, also went offline. The only way the missiles could have been launched was by an airborne command-and-control platform.

“The safety and security of the weapons system was never in doubt,” said Chandler, who is the Air Force vice chief of staff. “There are things we need to work on, there’s no doubt about that.”

During the review, Chandler said that officials will seek to confirm what happened. The four-star general said the initial readout is that it was a hardware malfunction, but he did not rule out evaluating any possible external causes.

The incident “is something that we need to look at from all angles and we’ll do that,” he said.

Officials will also review the command and control of the missiles, as well as their maintenance. The missiles were designed and built in the 1960s, but Chandler said the incident does not signal an overall degradation of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

However, the general did leave the door open to new investments in command-and-control systems for nuclear weapons.

Chandler added that likening Saturday’s incident to other high-profile nuclear problems in recent years — including the inadvertent cross-country flight of “hot” nuclear weapons loaded on a B-52 bomber — would be the “wrong comparison.”

The incident occurred at a crucial time as the Obama administration tries to sell the New START arms-reduction treaty with Russia to the Senate, which yet to bring the agreement to the floor for ratification (see related GSN story, today).

Chandler said he does not personally believe Saturday’s incident should have any affect on the treaty, which would reduce both countries’ nuclear stockpile by about 30 percent.

Retired Lt. Gen. Arlen Jameson, who commanded U.S. Strategic Command in the early 1990s, today called the incident an “isolated malfunction.” Jameson was one of several former nuclear commanders who have backed ratification of the treaty.

“Let’s not do something foolish like not ratify the New START treaty because of this isolated occurrence,” he said during a conference call with reporters.

But with many Senate Republicans poised to vote against ratification, it has long been unclear whether the Senate has the 67 votes necessary to ratify the treaty. Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who supports the treaty, expressed concerns Wednesday that it would not be approved during the upcoming lame-duck session.

The START treaty is “just not a high priority for many Republican members,” Lugar told the Council on Foreign Relations.