January 25, 1989
One-Tenth of Force Out of Operation
By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
The Air Force late last year removed nuclear warheads from five MX strategic missiles after one of the $80 million weapons fell from moorings inside an underground silo in Wyoming, senior Defense Department officials revealed yesterday.
The removal of a total of 50 warheads, a tenth of all warheads deployed on MX missiles, was aimed at preventing additional damage to the weapons that Air Force officials have called "the keystone of our nation's strategic defense."
The missile accident is the latest in a series of problems to afflict the MX, a controversial weapon that formed the centerpiece of the U.S. strategic nuclear modernization during the Reagan administration.
Despite the warhead removal, public affairs officials at F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo., where the force of 50 MX missiles is deployed, claimed last month that the missiles achieved "full operational capability" on Dec. 30. The Air Force, asserting that the he exact condition of MX missiles is secret, has never provided a public account of the accident and its implications.
Authoritative sources nonetheless disclosed that the problem has been studied intensively since last June, when launch control officers at the base were surprised by an electronic signal indicating that an MX missile was no longer functioning normally in-its silo.
An investigation found that the missile had become "unglued" from the launch canister used to propel the four-stage missile from the depths of its underground silo before the firing of the main solid-rocket motor and flight to the Soviet Union in event of a nuclear war.
The investigators found that the entire 70-foot-long, 90-ton missile had fallen between 6 inches and a foot, sustaining such grave damage that it had to be removed from the silo and returned to the manufacturer for extensive repairs, the sources said.
Because the missile's fall disconnected a key electrical wire, normally severed during launch, the accident may have given rise to brief concern that the MX was being launched, one source said. Defense Department official said there was no such danger since, as one source put it, "the missile was headed in the wrong direction."
The sources declined to say whether such a fall could have caused a serious fire or explosion. however.
The sources said an Air Force panel chaired by Lt. Gen. Richard A. Burpee, commander of the 15th strategic missile and bomber wing, had considered and rejected the notion that production or installation of the missile was deliberately sabotaged. It concluded instead that the problem stemmed from improper production of a single group of five missiles.
Senior Air Force officials responded to the panel's findings late last year by secretly ordering that the 10-warhead "package" atop each of the five MXs in the suspect group of missiles be removed to relieve pressure on bonds with their launch canisters, minimizing any chance these missiles, too, would fall inside their silos.
The panel has apparently not determined which missiles may he defective and how best to make any needed repairs, the sources said
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, complained last week in a private letter to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch that in a January conference with the committee staff, the Air Force briefers did not accurately describe the missiles' statue.
Aspin's letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, called the Air Force claim of 50 fully operational missiles last December "confusing at best and misleading at worst" given that some "missiles lack warheads."
Citing what he called a "hollow" earlier claim of "initial operational capability" for the B1 bomber, Aspin said the MX claim had reinforced "the worst expectations" of Congress and the public about "the institutional credibility of the Air Force."
When queried about the problem Friday, a public affairs officer at Warren Air Force Base who asked not to be identified denied that any warheads had been removed from MX missiles. "All 50 missiles have the necessary system support available to sustain alert status . . . including warheads and guidance packages," he said. Senior Defense Department officials in Washington yesterday contradicted the officer and confirmed that the warheads have been removed for an indefinite period.
Flight tests of the MX missiles have been suspended for the past two years because of Air Force concerns about its ability to strike Soviet targets with pinpoint accuracy, the missile's principal military virtue. However, a new test is expected soon.
Officials say the Air Force has solved a shortage of key guidance systems for the MX, but that a vital part of the system that measures the missile's velocity has been failing faster than expected