Sleeping Launch Crews and Outdated Launch Codes

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 1 month ago

From MSNBC.

Three ballistic missile crew members in North Dakota fell asleep while holding classified launch code devices this month, triggering an investigation by military and National Security Agency experts, the Air Force said Thursday.

The probe found that the missile launch codes were outdated and remained secure at all times. But the July 12 incident comes on the heels of a series of missteps by the Air Force that had already put the service under intense scrutiny …

Ford and other Air Force officials said the Minot-based crew had code devices that were no longer usable, since new codes had been installed in the missiles.

The three crew members, who are in the 91st Missile Wing, were in the missile alert facility about 70 miles from Minot. That facility includes crew rest areas and sits above the underground control center where the keys can be turned to launch ballistic missiles.

Officials said the three officers were behind locked doors and had with them the old code components, which are large classified devices that allow the crew to communicate with the missiles. Launch codes are part of the component, and the devices were described as large, metal boxes.

Ford said they were waiting to get back to base “and they fell asleep.”

It is not clear how long they were asleep.

There are periodic, regularly scheduled code changes, and there was a crew of four on duty. One of the crew members was not in the room with the other three at the time they fell asleep, the Air Force said.

The investigation concluded that the codes had remained secured in their containers, which have combination locks that can be opened only by the crew. The containers remained with the crew at all times, and the facility is guarded by armed security forces.

The Captain’s Journal knows a Marine who stayed awake for three days and nights in Fallujah in the summer of 2007.  Message to the Air Force: suck it up.  As for the outdated codes, many more words.

How does this happen?  Of course the codes are revised periodically.  Where is the independent verification?  Where are the signoffs and QA signatures?  Where is the oversight?  Where is the proper training?  What happened to the procedural guidance?  What programmatic controls failed, and why?

The Air Force needs a good review of this incident, including but not limited to a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) and a Management Oversight and Risk Tree analysis (MORT).  This cannot happen again.

  • Bob Sykes

    The disarray in the Air Force is absolutely stunning. What is especially worrisome is the apparent collapse of all levels of oversight in the strategic forces. Gates will need to purge many, many more officers and senior noncoms to salvage it.

  • Warbucks

    Memo To DOD,

    It’s more than just suck-it-up.

    Fail-safe theory has been developed and the entire investment based on 2-concurrent points of agreement: 2 launch keys.

    There are some ways to improve the control of the launch keys against human failure without having to rebuild our entire system. We don’t want to have to move to 3 launch keys. That’s expensive.

    The cheapest way to improve the integrity of the system is not through fear and punishment of the suck-it-up approach. Too much is at stake. The system has to work come hell or high water. The cheapest change in to regulate better the work cycles and the sleep cycles of the personnel.

    There are some things we can push into a system and suck-it-up (SIU) works well in many systems. We don’t want to push SIU into brain surgery, or the operating rooms, and we don’t want to push SIU into the natural and essential sleep cycles required for a fresh state of mind. It does not work that way.

  • jonesgp1996

    It appears that the media is succumbing to the temptation of dog-piling on the Air Force. Reeling from the sacking of the Secretary and Chief of Staff, the Air Force is ripe pickings for journalists – they smell blood in the water. Now they’re turning over every rock in an attempt to get more dirt.

    I don’t condone what’s happened in the Air Force of late – this launch-code fiasco, or the “comfort capsules” bought with funds intended for counter-terrorism. As a warfighter, it makes me madder than hell that some USAF general officers think it’s right to spend millions of dollars on their personal comfort during travel to war zones when that money could be better spent on the procurement of more MRAPs, for example.

    Personal bias aside, however, the Air Force is just the current target of the media “watchdog” spotlight. They largely have themselves to blame. I would imagine their senior leaders are hoping for the uncovering of some travel scandal or credit card fraud in another government agency so that they can catch a break. I hope these latest incidents lead to some introspection and at least a moderate change in AF culture. *Sigh* If only it were that easy…


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This article is filed under the category(s) Air Force and was published July 24th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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