The Atlantic (and now Wired) is reporting that an entire squadron of nuclear missiles unexpectedly dropped into a "launch facility down" status on Saturday morning, taking a sizable portion of America's nuclear deterrent offline:
President Obama was briefed this morning on a power failure at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming that took 50 nuclear ICBMs, one ninth of the U.S. missile stockpile, temporarily offline on Saturday.
The base is a main locus of the United States' strategic nuclear forces. The 90th Missile Wing, headquartered there, controls 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles. They're on full-time alert and housed in a variety of bunkers across the base.
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.
The White House response to the incident has been jaw dropping. When pressed on the critical security lapse, an unnamed official told Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic (emphasis mine): "to make too much out of this would be to sensationalize it. It's not that big of a deal. Everything worked as planned."
According to Ambinder's report, during the period that the squadron went offline, the 90th Missile Wing had absolutely no communication with 50 nuclear weapons. There was no security available to protect the affected sites, nor was there any way of monitoring if the missiles sprung a leak, had their targeting data wiped, or suffered a mechanical breakdown. This is one of the most concerning and significant lapses in nuclear command and control in memory.
This could have a significant impact on START ratification. Cutting our nuclear arsenal was predicated on the functionality and health of the current strategic arsenal. Republican lawmakers, led by Senator Jon Kyl, have been understandably reluctant to ratify START until their concerns about aging nuclear warheads were answered and mitigated by the Obama sdministration. With this enormous breach in command and control functionality, the condition of our ancient fleet of delivery systems -subs that are 30 years old, missiles that are 40, and bombers that are 50- will have to be closely examined.
When new START hits the Senate floor during the lame-duck session of Congress, lawmakers should make extra certain that there are plans -and resources- on the books to upgrade both our archaic nuclear stockpile as well as our submarines, bombers, and ICBMs.
I'll invoke my own experience as a nuclear launch officer here, having pulled several "alerts" in the affected squadron: nothing worked "as planned." But over the course of four years on Minuteman III missile crew, I saw maybe only three or four incidents where a single missile dropped offline. And having an entire launch-facility down condition is rare, unexpected, and gravely serious. An entire squadron dropping offline is beyond significant. Indeed, the chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force were both fired for less.