Noah Shachtman at Wired and Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic are both reporting a doozy of a story regarding an event at F.E. Warren AFB this weekend, when a power failure resulted in 50 nuclear ICBMs going into “launch facility down” (LF down) status for approximately 45 minutes.
As Ambinder describes it:
On Saturday morning, according to people briefed on what happened, a squadron of ICBMs suddenly dropped down into what’s known as “LF Down” status, meaning that the missileers in their bunkers no longer could communicate with the missiles themselves. LF Down status also means that various security protocols built into the missile delivery system, like intrusion alarms and warhead separation alarms, were offline.
In LF Down status, the missiles are still technically launch-able, but they could only be controlled by an airborne command and control platform like the Boeing E-6 NAOC “Kneecap” aircraft, or perhaps the TACAMO fleet, which is primarily used to communicate with nuclear submarines. “At no time did the president’s ability decrease,” an administration official said. Still, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, was immediately notified, and he, in turned, briefed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
He also quotes an anonymous military officer who states that “we’ve never lost complete command and control and functionality of 50 ICBMs.” The official Warren AFB response was one of reassurance, that there was no threat to the public, and that “redundant, safety, security and command and control features” were all in place. The cause of the power failure is unknown at this point, but no “malicious” activity is thought to have caused it.
Ambinder also quotes an administration official, who dismisses the situation somewhat, and says that “to make too much out of this would be to sensationalize it. It’s not that big of a deal. Everything worked as planned.”
Talk about sticking your foot in your mouth. Although this event wasn’t quite comparable to the infamous “nukes on a plane” SNAFU in 2007, an LF down event shouldn’t be dismissed as “not that big of a deal”, especially when viewed as part of the bigger picture of nuke-related screw-ups over the past few years.
Before I invite any commentary from missileers and others in the know, I’d like to mention one thing: this event comes at a critical time in terms of New START politics. There’s plenty of speculation regarding the Senate calculus after the midterm elections, and regardless of the fact that what happens with the ICBMs isn’t necessarily dependent upon the New START treaty, there will be a number of Senators who will try to gain as many concessions from the Obama administration as possible regarding “the M word“, as Jeffrey puts it (stockpile maintenance and upgrades). This weekend’s event at Warren AFB will undoubtedly be used to justify delaying a vote on the New START resolution, and will definitely result in some fireworks on the Senate floor.
I’m sure we’ll learn more about what happened at Warren AFB in the coming days and weeks, but share your thoughts and speculation. The floor is yours.