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Glitch disrupts Air Force nuke communications

A former Air Force Minuteman launch officer tells NBC News that 50 nuclear missiles affected by a communication interruption were "not launchable" during the event.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A former Air Force Minuteman launch officer tells NBC News that 50 nuclear missiles affected by a communication interruption last weekend were "not launchable" during the disruption and that the back-up computer system could not have launched them either.

The assessment by Bruce Blair, who once served as a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles launch control officer, contradicts earlier statement by the Air Force that the missiles were never totally "out of the control" of launch crews and were still launchable. There's no evidence of foul play.

Blair said Wednesday that the communication breakdown was the result of 5 computers going out of synch and needing to be re-synched, a rare occurrence that the Air Force is prepared to deal with using a standard checklist.

Blair said re-synching the computers involves everyone turning off their machines and re-booting, a process that takes about 45 minutes.

"It's kind of hair-raising and delicate but always works," Blair said, calling the computers there "50s'-era-technology."

"So for this short period, the 50 ICBMs were not launchable," by those computers, Blair said, adding, "and the airborne back-up system was not in position to launch them."

Blair said that if an order to fire had come in during that 45 minute period, the war plan would have to have been executed without these 50 Minutemen.

White House briefed
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician said earlier the interruption occurred early Saturday at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and lasted less than one hour. The White House was briefed about the failure Tuesday morning.

The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are part of the 319th Missile Squadron stockpiled at the base, where 150 ICBMs are located. The failure affected 50 of them, or one-ninth of the U.S. arsenal.

The equipment failure disrupted "communication between the control center and the missiles, but during that time they were still able to monitor the security of the affected missiles," Vician told the Associated Press. "The missiles were always protected. We have multiple redundancies and security features, and control features."

The launch control center computers communicate through an underground cable, but Vician could not confirm the cable was the source of the problem. Despite the security stopgap measures, military officials acknowledged to NBC that any break in the control system is considered "serious," and said the Air Force was expected to release a comprehensive report on the issue later Wednesday.

Vician said base personnel inspected all 50 missile sites and found no evidence of damage.

One military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly, said the equipment in the launch control center has been the subject of unspecified communications problems in the past.

The White House referred questions to the Pentagon.

The failure was first reported by The Atlantic on the magazine's website. An administration official told The Atlantic that "to make too much out of this would be to sensationalize it. It's not that big of a deal."

The engineering failure put various security protocols — such as intrusion alarms and warhead separation alarms — offline, but the missiles were still technically launchable by airborne command, people briefed on the matter said, according to the Atlantic.

Latest embarrassment for the Air Force
The communications failure is the latest in a series of nuclear mishaps that have plagued the Air Force in recent years.

In August 2007, an Air Force B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. At the time, the pilot and crew were unaware they had nuclear arms aboard.

Then, in March 2008, the Pentagon disclosed the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads and launched a broad investigation into the military's handling of nuclear related materials.

An internal report asserted that slippage in the Air Force's nuclear standards was a problem that has been identified but not effectively addressed for more than a decade. Those findings led to Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to fire Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Gen. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff.