A nuclear nightmare

2014-03-19 00:00

AYEAR after 17 officers in charge of nuclear bombs in the United States were canned for startling safety bungles — at the same base which recently “lost” six nuclear warheads — a fifth of the country’s entire nuke staff are being investigated for cheating on safety tests.

And a former nuclear-missile launch-control officer, Bruce Blair, told The Witness that “profound boredom” experienced by America’s missileers is threatening safety — adding that South Africa has saved itself a maintenance “nightmare” by giving up the bomb.

A massive review of the U.S.’s nuclear forces has been ordered following an astonishing string of blunders by the 500 officers charged with babysitting its arsenal of 5 000 nuclear weapons — a speciality that has gone from recruiting elite officers during the Cold War to now attracting the “bottom of the barrel”.

This includes the removal of the top general himself, Major-General Michael Carey, for drunkenly cavorting with prostitutes in Russia, trying to seize the microphone from a live band, and bragging that he “saves the world from war every day”.

Meanwhile, 34 officers from a nuclear base have been accused of cheating on safety tests, and another 58 have been implicated.

More troubling still are the revelations in a new book, which reveals that the U.S. has “lost track” of at least 11 nukes over the years. One of these weapons — more powerful on its own than all bombs yet dropped in war combined — is today lying buried, unguarded, in a marshy farmer’s field in North Carolina.

Former Minuteman nuclear launch-control officer Bruce Blair told this reporter that a single nuclear missile at his Montana base had once “gone into countdown mode” through a computer malfunction, and had ignored override commands. He said a colleague — in a desperate and inspired improvisation — had then parked a truck over the concrete silo hatch, in the hope that the missile would collide with it on launch, and explode before triggering a global war. The missile did not launch.

Blair also described his “pure terror” when he once removed launch keys and the plastic “code brick” from a safe in a showdown with the Soviet Union.

Following a surprise inspection, an Air Force inspector-general’s report last year declared the launch skills of the crews at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, which houses 150 giant “ICBM” nukes, as “marginal”. Seventeen officers were removed from their posts, while another officer is under investigation for an “unspecified act”, which could have compromised the nuclear launch codes.

The Associated Press has published an internal e-mail by Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Folds, deputy commander of the regional missile wing, which declared: “We are, in fact, in a crisis right now.”

Air Force investigations into recent nuclear blunders included these discoveries:

• In 2007, air crews at Minot were supposed to load “dummy” weights onto six missiles to be sent to Louisiana for decommissioning. Instead, they mistakenly attached six live nuclear warheads, which unwitting pilots, flying a plane called “Doom 99”, then flew across the country. The nukes sat unguarded in Louisiana for a further nine hours before startled ground crew discovered they had acquired six nuclear weapons, each 10 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

• In August 2006, Hill Air Force Base in Utah was supposed to send four helicopter battery packs to Taiwan’s military. Instead, they mistakenly sent four nuclear missile fuses to Taiwan — and neither government realised the mistake for the next 18 months, as the fuses sat in an unguarded storage facility.

Meanwhile, using research, including declassified documents for a new book Drift: the Unmooring of American Military Power, political scientist and TV personality Rachel Maddow states that key skills have been lost as Cold War experts have retired.

The book quotes from a recent military report, in which an air force general admits that some nuclear fuses, which are also used to prevent detonations, were failing, and that no one knew how to fix them. The officer said: “Initial attempts to refurbish the Mk21 fuses were unsuccessful in large part due to their sophistication and complexity”. Meanwhile, the military has been unable to reproduce a special material, code-named “Fogbank”, which Cold War experts used for submarine missiles.

Maddow also revealed that, in addition to at least three lost warheads acknowledged by the Pentagon, three more live nuclear bombs are lying in widely known but inaccessible locations today.

She revealed the following.

• One bomb is lying on the deep ocean floor near Japan — of all places. The plane carrying the weapon slipped off an aircraft carrier elevator platform in 1966, and into the sea, “and it’s still down there”.

• In 1968, a B52 bomber crash-landed in Greenland, causing the conventional explosives within three of its nuclear bombs to explode. This generated a vast “dirty bomb” radiation disaster, which required the excavation of four billion kilograms of contaminated ice. However, the book points to declassified documents showing that, contrary to public claims by the Pentagon, the plane’s fourth nuclear bomb did not explode, but sank through the ice intact. Maddow states: “Our military … figured if they couldn’t find it, then no bad guys could either.”

• A massive hydrogen bomb lies today, just a couple of dozen metres beneath a farmer’s field in Faro, North Carolina. The bomb fell from a plane that disintegrated over the area in 1961, and its parachute failed to deploy. Maddow quotes the former farmer, C.T. Davis, saying that the military was unable to recover the bomb because its excavation equipment also sank beneath the quicksand in the field. Despite years of Pentagon claims that thermonuclear material was recovered from the Faro bomb, Maddow states that the bomb, 250 times the power of the Hiroshima device, remains live. Maddow quips: “If you’re ever in the neighbourhood and want to play with your metal detector, you can find the exact spot on Google Earth. It’s just immediately left of Big Daddy’s Road”.

The book also details the U.S.’s “dirty bomb” accidents, in which nuclear warheads have been blown up, spreading radiation. In the worst case, a bomb’s radiation was spread over Spain’s Palomares region in 1966, after its bomber had collided with a refuelling aircraft. The U.S. removed 1 400 tons of radioactive soil, but the Spanish government is now demanding that the U.S. return to remove a further 50 000 cubic metres of soil, with even distant farmers complaining of reduced harvests, and concerns over high local cancer rates.

Blair, who is now president of a think tank, the World Security Institute, said the U.S. remains the safest and most responsible of the world’s seven nuclear powers. “I wouldn’t describe the whole programme as being in crisis — that would be overstating, “ he said.

“Russia also takes safety very seriously, despite the awful austerity measures they’ve suffered, which has affected maintenance and training in their strategic missile forces. But countries such as Pakistan do not have the same experience, and some alarm is warranted over [possible accidents] there.”

He added that South Africa’s decision to abandon its nuclear-weapons programme in 1991 had been “brilliant”, and a model which others could follow to help prevent “both intentional and unintentional detonations”.

“South Africans cannot know the headaches and treasure they have saved for themselves by the brilliant decision not to pursue their nuclear weapons programme,” he said.

IN an interview with The Witness, Bruce Blair — a former nuclear- missile launch officer, and now head of a nuclear weapons think-tank — describes a day in the life of the men and women with the nuclear keys. During his underground shifts in Montana in the seventies, Blair, together with one other colleague, was responsible for 10 Minuteman missiles, with a combined power of 800 Hiroshima atom bombs.

“The job is 99,9% tedium and 0,1% sheer terror and adrenaline.

“For an alert drill, of which there are seven or eight per month, crews begin their day by reporting for duty as a group at the main base, and will get a briefing on the threats — let’s say a Russian submarine that may be patrolling in the Atlantic ocean.

“I was on alert during the very last time nuclear weapons were actually alerted for the purpose of coercing Russia — during the Arab-Israeli war. I was in the hole; it was quite an adrenaline rush just to pull the launch keys and codes out of the safe and stand by for a possible order to launch the missiles.

“Each crew of two officers controls each flight of 10 missiles. They go out to an SUV and drive out to their alert location — anywhere from 10 miles [16,1 kilometres] to 125 miles [201,168 kilometres] from their base. They have their credentials checked by security police, they enter an elevator which is [20 metres] to [30 metres] in depth, and at the bottom they meet the crew they are relieving. That crew will have the blast door open — an eight-ton blast door to prevent [forced access].

“When they close that blast door behind them, the launch officers are only taking orders from the president or his proxies.

“First, they go though a changeover procedure, including the status of the 10 missiles — one might be broken — with a maintenance crew inside the silo. They hand over the launch keys and launch codes, which are used to validate and execute launch orders. The key each officer gets looks just like an ignition key for a car, and there are plastic envelopes the size of a deck of cards. If they were to receive a launch order, they would crack those codes open.

“The new crew puts them in the safe and puts their own padlocks on the safe. The new crew sits there for 24 hours. They go through checklists, they test communications, they very routinely will be called upon to go through exercises; going through the motions of going to war. But essentially, they sit idly down there.

“If the order comes, they take out the keys and codes, and strap themselves into their seats to brace for any incoming strike. They can launch the missiles in as little as 60 seconds — they don’t call it Minuteman for nothing. I could fire them in 60 seconds in the seventies; you could do it even faster now.

“They have all the targets in the computer memory, but the missiles need to know what war plan they’re supposed to carry out. In the 60-second procedure, one of the check-list items is that you punch in a number that tells the missile which target to select. The launch order may say this is Plan 55, and all the missiles — all of them, even submarines at sea — know what Plan 55 means.

“Missiles don’t have default targets of, say, Moscow anymore. Thankfully, the default target now is the ocean.”

Asked if he, or current crews, are ever asked to conduct “blind tests”, where they turn their launch keys, not knowing if it’s a real war or an exercise, Blair said: “No, that’s a Hollywood scenario. You would not put someone in the field who has been stressed out by that type of test.

“They might lose their composure and ability to adhere to checklists; you’d actually be creating the risk of unintended launch; not to mention the risk of heart attacks.”

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