The Washington Post
February 15, 1989

Slight slip, big bucks.

Falling Missile Jars Loose Shower of Bills

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer

The Air Force has disclosed that the accidental drop of an MX missile inside its Wyoming silo last June cost at least $4.78 million, or roughly $683,000 for each of the seven inches it slipped.

The tally includes the cost of replacing the missile's huge first stage, "totally destroyed" when the missile unexpectedly dropped to the bottom of its launch canister while it was "on alert" to retaliate in case of a Soviet nuclear attack, according to the service's official accident report.

The total also includes cost of repairing the missile's fourth, or uppermost stage, and replacing vital electrical connections severed by the fall. But it does not include the cost of gingerly removing the fractured missile from its silo, conducting a lengthy investigation and ultimately pulling 50 nuclear warheads off five other MX missiles as a precaution against more such accidents.

One source said the government would shoulder the costs but Air Force officials could not confirm this.

The report, completed in November but withheld from the public until an account of the accident appeared in the news media, confirms that a "missile away," or launch, signal was received by missile officers after the accident occurred. But it maintains there was no risk of a missile launch or public danger from an accidental explosion.

The accident was blamed on the failure of epoxy glue, produced in a single lot, that held the missile to its launch canister. Air Force officials believe the defect is confined to the five missiles with no warheads, but as of several weeks ago had not established a plan for potential repairs.

Buried in the report are several additional signs of trouble with the weapons system that Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles May Jr. billed as "one of the most successful ... ever undertaken by this nation." It notes, for example, that the missile's guidance and control system had been changed seven times in the year before the accident, a frequency the service acknowledges is "excessive."

The report also said a "deployment module" for one of the missile's 10 nuclear warheads was found to be defective after the missile was pulled from the silo and taken apart. The "failed component was determined to be unrelated to the incident under investigation," the report said without elaboration.

A spokesman for the Strategic Air Command was unable to provide additional details.