Botched nuclear silo drill revealed

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 raised concerns about such an intrusion 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.

The failure was one of a string of nuclear missile corps setbacks revealed 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 indicates 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 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 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 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.”

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.