Power Failure Shuts Down Squadron of Nuclear Missiles?

Posted: October 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

The Atlantic reports

…a power failure at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming that took 50 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), one-ninth of the U.S. missile stockpile, temporarily offline on Saturday.

How serious – or better said, how weird – is this whole event?  First off, part of the story is mangled, because power failures don’t take sorties off line—that’s what back-up AC power and batteries are for and these systems have those capabilities.  Still, the Chairman, SecDef and the President were all briefed.

Tell me the last time the President was briefed on an ICBM event.  Maybe Reagan with Peacekeeper activation, circa 1987?

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 could no longer 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 deal with LF Down is that the sorties status is unknown.  You don’t know if sortie is responding to commands or not.  You don’t know if it’s secure or not.  You’re not getting any status.  But again, some story mangling – remember, the first report from the field is always wrong — is going on here as it was (and in a moment, will be) described as a power failure:

An Air Force spokesperson, Christy Nolta, said the power failure lasted less than an hour. “There was a temporary interruption and the missiles themselves were always protected by multiple, redundant, safety, security and command and control features. At no time was there any danger to the public,” she said.

OK.  Pick one.  Is it a power failure or LF Down?  There’s a big difference.  Sorties lose commercial power all the time.

The cause of the failure remains unknown, although it is suspected to be a breach of underground cables deep beneath the base, according to a senior military official.

It is next to impossible for these systems to be hacked, so the military does not believe the incident was caused by malicious actors. A half dozen individual silos were affected by Saturday’s failure.

Ack.  A cable breach of some sort?  My guess would be some sort of crypto and synchronization fault.  Or human error, like someone in a launch control center popped the wrong drawer (with power still applied) and then freaked out and reseated it (with power still applied).  And a half-dozen silos?  Is it six or is it a whole squadron worth, that is, 50.

An administration official said 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.”

Er, no.  When fifty sorties drop, things aren’t working as planned.

This gets back to the age of the ICBM infrastructure, which is now pushing fifty years old.  The missiles, the operating system, and the warheads have all been refurbished, remanufactured, and modernized through the years.  The infrastructure, not so much.

National Journal’s Megan Scully contacted a spokesperson for Sen. Jon Kyl, a top GOP critic of START, who said that “We don’t know what happened and why.”  The spokesperson refused to comment on “media reports.”

“We don’t know what happened and why,” is the reality of the situation.

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