WASHINGTON - 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The probe found that the missile launch codes were outdated and remained secure at all times.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.
"This was just a procedural violation that we investigated," said Air Force Col. Dewey Ford, a spokesman at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "We determined that there was no compromise."
The lapse, which involved a crew based at Minot Air Force Base, south of the Canadian border, was serious enough, however, to prompt an investigation by the 91st Missile Wing, in conjunction with codes experts at the 20th Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command and the National Security Agency.
It also delivers another blow to the beleaguered Air Force.
Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a sweeping shake-up of the Air Force leadership, blaming them for failing to deal fully with a series of nuclear-related mishaps.
At the time, Gates said his decisions to sack the Air Force secretary and chief of staff were based mainly on the blistering conclusions of an internal report on the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four Air Force fusing devices for ballistic missile nuclear warheads.
He also linked the underlying causes of that slip-up to the August incident in which a B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear warheads and flown from Minot Air Force Base, south of the Canadian border, to Barksdale Air Force Base in the southern state of Louisiana.
No one has been punished in the latest Minot incident that involved sleeping crew members. A continuing review by Minot commanders will determine what, if any, actions will be taken against them.
Codes were outdated
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."