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Air Force lost some communication with nuclear missiles

From Larry Shaughnessy and Chris Lawrence, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Missiles are based around Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming
  • The hour-long break with 50 missiles raises concern
  • The incident involving a hardware issue occurred Saturday
  • The affected missiles comprise 11 percent of the total ICBM arsenal
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Washington (CNN) -- The Air Force lost partial communications with 50 nuclear missiles for almost an hour last weekend, an Air Force spokesman said Tuesday.

The problem, characterized as a "single hardware issue," affected more than 10 percent of the country's ICBM arsenal on Saturday morning, according to Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Wesley Miller IV.

Because of redundant systems, at no time was the Air Force unable to monitor, communicate with or, if need be, launch the intercontinental ballistic missiles on the president's command, several military officials said.

"Any time the president wanted to fire those missiles, he could have," a senior defense official said. At no time was the public in jeopardy, according to another military official.

The Minuteman III ICBMs are multiple warhead missiles that are controlled from Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming but are in missile silos spread out over a wide area around the base.

After the problem was detected, each silo was inspected by base personnel to make certain all 50 missiles were safe and secure.

The exact nature of the problem is still under investigation.

"The specific cause for the disruption is currently being analyzed on site by engineers from the ICBM systems program office," according to an Air Force statement.

A senior defense official said it was an underground cable that got disrupted.

The United States currently has 450 Minutemen III ICBMs. While the squadron of 50 that had problems Saturday represents 11 percent of America's ICBM arsenal, the United States also has bomber-based and sea-based nuclear weapons.

The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, informed Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about the problem during the weekend.

Mullen made sure Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was informed. President Obama was briefed on the issue on Tuesday morning, according to a report in Atlantic Monthly.

Gates takes nuclear weapon security very seriously. In 2008, Gates took the unprecedented step of firing both the Air Force secretary and the Air Force chief of staff because of two highly publicized mistakes involving Air Force nuclear weapons.

First there was the embarrassing revelation in August 2007 that a B-52 bomber took off from North Dakota with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that no one knew were live weapons until after the plane landed in Louisiana.

Then came word that the Air Force mistakenly shipped fuses that are used in nuclear weapons to Taiwan in 2006 in crates believed to contain helicopter batteries.