January 22, 2016 11:08 pm

Air Force says human error damaged nuclear-armed missile in silo

U.S. Air Force, Gen. Robin Rand speaks after taking command of Air Force Global Strike Command during a ceremony at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. Errors by three airmen troubleshooting a nuclear missile in its launch silo in 2014 triggered a "mishap" that damaged the missile.

Mozer O. Da Cunha/U.S. Air Force via AP

WASHINGTON – Errors by three airmen troubleshooting a nuclear missile in its launch silo in 2014 triggered a “mishap” that damaged the missile, prompting the Air Force to strip the airmen of their nuclear certification and quietly launch an accident investigation, officials said Friday.

In a statement released to The Associated Press, the Air Force declined to provide key additional details or a copy of the report produced last November by the Accident Investigation Board, saying the information was classified and too sensitive to be made public.

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Under the Air Force’s own regulations, Accident Investigation Board reports are supposed to be made public. The Air Force did release a brief summary to the AP after it repeatedly sought answers for more than a year. The summary said the full report was classified on Nov. 9, 2015, by Gen. Robin Rand, who took over as commander of Air Force Global Strike Command in July 2015.

The Air Force said the accident caused no injuries and posed no risk to public safety. It said top Pentagon officials were briefed on the results of the investigation in December, as were members of Congress.

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The damaged missile was removed from its underground silo, which is designated Juliet-07 and situated among wheat fields and wind turbines about nine miles west of Peetz, Colorado. The silo, one of 10 in a cluster, or flight, that straddles the Colorado-Nebraska border, is controlled by launch officers of the 320th Missile Squadron and administered by the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

The accident follows a period of turmoil inside the nuclear missile corps that the AP revealed in a series of articles and amid an emerging national debate about the costs and benefits of investing hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize the entire strategic nuclear force at a time when war craft is changing.

The Minuteman 3 is the only land-based intercontinental ballistic missile in the nuclear force. First deployed in 1970, it long ago exceeded its planned service life, and the Air Force is developing plans for a replacement.

The Air Force’s brief summary of the Juliet-07 mishap said the Minuteman 3 missile “became non-operational” during a diagnostic test on the evening of May 16, 2014.

The next morning a “mishap crew” chief, who was not identified, “did not correctly adhere to technical guidance” during troubleshooting efforts, “subsequently damaging the missile.” No further details about the damage or errors were revealed.

The investigation report summary said the actual cause of the accident, established by “clear and convincing evidence,” is classified. It said there were four contributing factors to the accident, of which it identified two. One was the mishap chief’s failure to follow technical guidance. The other was that the mishap chief “lacked the necessary proficiency level” to anticipate the consequences of his actions during the troubleshooting.

In seeming contradiction of that second point, the Air Force said in its separate statement to the AP that the mishap team chief was properly trained for the task he was performing. It said he and two other airmen on his team were immediately stripped of their certification to work with nuclear weapons. They remained decertified for “over a year,” until they were retrained and returned to nuclear duty.

Lt. Col. John Sheets, spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command, said it is possible that some or all of the three could still face disciplinary action.

To prevent a recurrence of their mistake and the accident it caused, the Air Force said it has “strengthened” technical guidance, modified training curriculum and shared information about the conditions that led to the mishap with other units that operate Minuteman 3 missiles.

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Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein was commander of the ICBM force at the time of the incident. The AP requested an interview with him but the Air Force declined to make him available. Weinstein is now the top staff officer on nuclear matters at Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon.

When the AP inquired about the accident in December 2014, Sheets said no details could be released until after the accident investigation board had completed its work and presented its findings to the commander of Global Strike Command. He assured the AP that the investigation report would be made public, although when the AP filed a request for it in March 2015 under the Freedom of Information Act, the Air Force denied the request, saying the information was “exempt from mandatory disclosure” and would be withheld from release because it consisted of “advice, opinions, evaluations or recommendations.”

Sheets later said the report was not yet complete but would be made public as required under Air Force regulations. He subsequently amended that, saying senior officials had decided the information was too sensitive to release.

The Air Force’s own legal office says the purpose of an accident investigation is to provide a publicly releasable report of the facts and the circumstances of the accident. An Air Force order dated April 14, 2015, is explicit about this.

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“An accident investigation conducts a legal investigation to inquire into all the facts and circumstances surrounding Air Force aerospace and ground accidents to prepare a publicly releasable report” and to obtain evidence for use in litigation and disciplinary action.

At times the Air Force has been slow to acknowledge its nuclear missteps. In 2014 then-Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed worry that personnel failures were squandering public trust in the nuclear force. He ordered an independent review, which was underway at the time of the Juliet-07 accident. The review team was not told of it, however, because “the accident was going through the investigative process” at the time, the Air Force told the AP.

The most recent previous Air Force investigation of an accident at an ICBM launch silo was in 2008. That investigation, which was publicly released, found that a fire in a launcher equipment room went undetected for five days. It uncovered the remarkable fact that the Air Force was using duct tape on cables linked to the missile.

The fire was caused by a loose electrical connection on a battery charger that was activated when a storm knocked out the main power source. The fire ignited a shotgun storage case, incinerated shotgun shells, ignited and melted duct tape at the opening of the launch tube, charred an umbilical cable in several places, and burned through wires in a pressure monitoring cable.

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