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U.S. ICBM Force: Unprepared for a Terrorist Attack

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U.S. ICBM forces were recently in the news again, and, as too often seems to be the case lately, the news was not good. In the past year, stories have come out about missile launch officers cheating on exams and taking drugs, a commander removed after drinking and inappropriate behavior on a trip to Russia, and another for passing counterfeit gambling chips. The latest report concerns an Air Force security team at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana (also the home of the cheating scandal and drug investigation) that last summer failed an exercise designed to test its ability to respond to the simulated capture of an ICBM silo. While the failure was reported at the time of the exercise, it was not clear that this was because of a security problem. Now more details have come out about what actually happened.

Empty Quiver

Malmstrom is home to 150 of the Air Force’s 450 missile silos housing Minuteman III ICBMs. Each silo contains a missile armed with a nuclear warhead that is constantly on high alert, ready to launch in minutes if the president gives the order. The exercise last summer reportedly required the security team to recapture a silo after it had been seized by intruders. This scenario, in which a nuclear weapon is lost, stolen, or seized, is known as an “empty quiver.”

The team failed the test when it was unable to retake the silo quickly enough to satisfy the requirements of the exercise. According to an internal Air Force review document obtained by the Associated Press, the security team did not take “all lawful actions necessary to immediately regain control of a nuclear weapon.” Because of the potentially huge consequences if a nuclear weapon were to fall into the wrong hands, this was, not surprisingly, labeled a “critical deficiency.” The officer in charge of the security forces was fired shortly after the failed exercise.

 “All lawful actions”

ICBM Terrorist Attack Force on Force Exercise

The Security Forces Group Tactical Response Force for the 90th Missile Wing conducted a launch facility re-capture exercise at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, February 18, 2014. Photo: afglobalstrike

The story gets more interesting, however.  Before it was released to the AP, the review document was redacted to remove the section defining what was meant by “all lawful actions.” A colleague, Ed Lyman, who is an expert on nuclear power plant security, suggested that this language may mean the security team hesitated to use deadly force, which would be authorized in this scenario, even against seemingly peaceful intruders (who may not actually be so peaceful).

The 2012 break-in at the Y-12 National Security Complex might help to provide a real-world illustration of how such hesitation could happen.  In that case, the guard who first arrived on the scene encountered an 82-year-old nun and two other peace protestors in the highly secured area, outside a building where highly enriched uranium is stored. He detained the trio and waited for back-up to arrive before arresting them. He was then fired because of his “blatant disregard for the seriousness of the situation and failure to take immediate control of the intruders,” but it is difficult to believe that he would have been judged less harshly had he instead used deadly force, as he was authorized to do.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Given the inherent ambiguity and potential for confusion in any security incident, the explanation from Colonel Robert Stanley, who was commander of the missile wing at the time, for why the security team failed is even more interesting. Stanley said that the simulation was done “in a way that we’ve never seen before,” and that “it confused our airmen.” But, as Monty Python famously noted, “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” Surely the point of such an exercise is (or should be) to test the security forces in a situation that is as realistic as possible? And, if so, surprise and confusion are par for the course.

In fact, the Air Force itself has noted a change in its thinking about security after 9/11. While it used to assume that the levels of security involved in preparing a nuclear missile for launch meant that it would be impossible for a terrorist group to actually carry out an unauthorized launch (as opposed to just stealing the nuclear material in the warhead, which would be bad enough), the United States “no longer has the luxury of assuming what is and is not possible.” In this case, the security force’s ability to respond to novel or surprising situations would seem to be critical. And yet that’s what it apparently failed to do.

Posted in: Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Weapons Tags: , , , ,

About the author: Ms. MacDonald received her MA in International Relations and Comparative Politics from Cornell University in 2009, specializing in China. Before coming to UCS in 2011 she worked at the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, and was an instructor at Endicott College teaching courses on international relations. Areas of expertise: Nuclear weapons complex, China

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/brianweeden Brian Weeden

    I’m not sure the headline matches with the content of this piece. There’s nothing in it (or elsewhere) to suggest that terrorists could somehow launch nuclear weapons. While the ROE for armed response to an intrusion (and perhaps how that has changed over time) is an important question, that is very different from the ability to gain control of a nuclear weapon.

    What is a real and serious concern is that the nuclear operations world could pose an easy and inviting target for a demonstration. Merely attacking a Missile Alert Facility or a convoy (even if said attack had no real impact and was repelled) could be a way for terrorist groups to get significant notice.

    • Stephen Young

      Brian,
      Thanks for your comment. While yes, the headline is provocative, it does not imply that terrorists could launch a nuclear missile. We agree that such a scenario is not feasible. The real issue here is whether security forces can ensure that terrorists could not seize control of a warhead on an ICBM. We don’t have enough information to know exactly what happened in the exercise in question, but the fact that it was graded a failure should raise red flags. And if, as suggested, the failure was due to an inability to quickly analyze and respond to a novel threat scenario, that is certainly cause for concern. Hopefully this exercise will have served as a learning experience, but any indication that nuclear weapons security needs to be improved deserves to be taken seriously.
      (posted by Stephen for Eryn)