Air Force officers entrusted with the launch keys to long-range nuclear missiles have been caught twice this year leaving open a blast door that is intended to help prevent a terrorist or other intruder from entering their underground command post, Air Force officials said.
The blast doors are never to be left open if one of the crew members inside is asleep - as was the case in both these instances - out of concern for the trouble an intruder could cause, including the compromising of secret launch codes.
Transgressions such as this are rarely revealed publicly. But officials with direct knowledge of Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile operations told The Associated Press that such violations have occurred, undetected, more times than in the cases of the two launch crew commanders and two deputy commanders who were given administrative punishments this year.
The blast door violations are another sign of trouble in the handling of the nation's nuclear arsenal. The AP has discovered a series of problems within the ICBM force, including a failed safety inspection, the temporary sidelining of launch officers deemed unfit for duty and the abrupt firing last week of the two-star general in charge. The problems, including low morale, underscore the challenges of keeping safe such a deadly force that is constantly on alert but is unlikely ever to be used.
The crews who operate the missiles are trained to follow rules without fail, including the prohibition against having the blast door open when only one crew member is awake.