Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Wrong Time for a Total Review

North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan.

In the wake of that recent, inadvertent "transfer" of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on an Air Force B-52, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan is pushing for a "total review" of the Pentagon's system for handling and controlling nuclear weapons.

According to Air Force Times, Senator Dorgan won approval Tuesday for an amendment mandating a complete review of DoD and Energy Department activities for monitoring and controlling the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. The Dorgan amendment calls for the review to be completed within 90 days, and that a classified report be submitted to Congress. Dorgan's plan was approved by the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, as it considered next year's defense spending bill.

The vote came less than two weeks after an Air Force B-52 carried six advanced cruise missiles (ACMs) armed with nuclear warheads, from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Apparently, neither ground crews nor the bomber's crew realized that the warheads remained mounted on the missiles, which were being transferred to Barksdale for dismantling and retirement.

“Clearly, last week, something went wrong with a system where there can be no mistakes,” Dorgan said in a press statement. “We need to understand exactly what mistakes were made and what changes are needed to ensure it cannot be repeated.”


“It is critical that every area of our government that has any chain of custody of nuclear weapons, at any time, have a top to bottom review of procedures, and an evaluation of the process of ensuring the chain of custody of nuclear weapons,” Dorgan stated.

While the type of review mandated for the Senate makes for good political theater, it isn't the answer for what went wrong at Minot. All indications point to human failures in the B-52 incident; after all, missiles didn't load themselves onto the bomber, and someone was supposed to remove the warheads from the cruise missiles before they left the weapons storage area. And of course, there were supposed to be safeguards and double-checks to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Based on our experience, the "system" has worked well for more than 50 years, so the failure at Minot wasn't the result of faulty procedures or ineffective custody controls. So, instead of calling for a three-month review of checklists and procedures, Mr. Dorgan should demand a more focused inquiry, concentrating on these areas:

1) The Personnel Reliability Program (PRP). As we noted in a recent post, there are legitimate concerns about who's being cleared to work on (and around) nuclear weapons. PRP is supposed to prevent access by individuals with medical, financial or emotional problems but with unit commanders ultimately deciding who's cleared, individuals with questionable conduct --or documented personal issues--have remained on PRP. One retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant (who spent almost a decade in the program and served as Senior Enlisted Advisor at a overseas munitions base) estimates that 25-35% of the individuals on PRP should not be in the program. According to the Chief, the problem was simple: no one wanted to enforce mandated PRP standards, because units would wind up with serious manning shortfalls. That's a damning indictment, and in light of the Minot debacle, the "reliability" of our nuclear screening program deserves serious scrutiny.

2) Training. Protocols for the handling, storing and protection of nuclear weapons have always been exceedingly stringent--for obvious reasons. Those warheads were supposed to be removed from the missiles before they left the weapons storage area and made their way to the flightline and onto that B-52. The failure of anyone to catch that mistake suggests a major training breakdown among munitions crews and aircrew members. After all, it wasn't a munitions troop at the controls of that bomber. Determining the extent of training problems that led to the failure should be a second area for serious inquiry.

3) Management of the Munitions Career Field. After our first post on the Minot incident (5 September), we received a number of thoughtful replies from veterans of the munitions career field, some with decades of nuclear experience. They raised a number of points that should also be addressed as part of the review process. For starters, has the profession become too "generalized" with technicians shuttling between conventional and nuclear units, resulting in a dilution of the experience pool that existed in the heydays of SAC. Also worth considering are the impacts of the recent Air Force draw down (what one commenter describes as the planes-for-people program), and deployments associated with the GWOT. In some cases, munitions troops have apparently pulled combat tours as prison guards and interrogators--not the wisest use of manpower, particularly if experience levels in the career field are hurting.

Carefully examining these areas should identify the root causes of the Minot debacle--and prevent similar mistakes in the future. But the investigation will miss its mark without full accountability for the failure, up and down the chain of command. Another retired senior NCO, who spent much of his Air Force career guarding nuclear weapons and delivery systems, put it succinctly:

"They should not stop at firing just the munitions squadron commander...the Installation Commander, the Maintenance Group Commander, both the Maintenance and Security Forces Commanders, and all involved in safety, security and reliability need to be courtsmartialed!..all involved need to go down in a ball of flames."

That may sound a little harsh--and it doesn't sound like what Senator Dorgan has in mind. Fact is, the Senate-directed "top to bottom review" is, in some respects, a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. Existing procedures for handling, storing and safeguarding nuclear weapons are both adequate and effective, assuming that (a) they're properly enforced; (b) personnel are trained to follow them and (c) key specialists are correctly vetted and they're not over-taxed by deployments and duties outside their career field.

Fixing those issues--and holding personnel accountable for the recent screw-up at Minot--are the best ways to prevent such "accidents" from happening again. And that's likely what the Air Force will address in its own, on-going investigation of the incident. At this point, Mr. Dorgan would be well-advised to let the Air Force team do its job before mandating a more extensive review.

But that doesn't make for a headline-grabbing Senate Amendment or press release, does it?


Frank said...

Some people screwed up and didn't follow the procedures. The solution is a review of all of the procedures. Oh, and we need that in 90 days.
Just wow.

AV-O said...


Certainly agree with you on final words: Headline-grabbing Senate amendment.

As you know, the need to "do something" after an incident within DoD is powerful and institutionally compelling. As you cited, existing policies/procedures are in place and have functioned effectively in the past. As I have revealed to readers, I have served within the nuclear chain of custody and no-lone zones (single-seat nuclear capable fighters) and was Personal Reliability Program-qualified in various combat wings over my career.

Four things to say: First, one problem faced by military leaders today that is bigger than in years past is that personal histories of our young troops, prior to service, seem "richer" in bad choices (documented bad choices) than ever before. Thus, it is more challenging to maintain the PRP level of quality demanded by policies--that is reality: so many disqualifiers therefore so few qualified. (However, positions need to be filled to maintain combat readiness.)

Secondly, the current AFSO21 "grass fire" blazing across the AF, led by the CSAF, has us mired in “lean"/Six Sigma application of corporate "waste cutting" to military practices (and not a few medals being written for some dubious results). I would not at all be surprised to find (if it is ever made public) that the 5th Bomb Wing embraced a Value Stream Map that enticed them to eliminate steps in some portion of their nuclear handling/loading "process" to "save" time/money/manpower (theoretically), and therefore "lean" their processes. (AFSO21 is a virus spreading through senior officer corps, much like MBO and QAF choked basic compliance along with good order and discipline in earlier periods. General Jumper, even prior to being named CSAF, famously stated, “We had a quality Air Force until we killed it with the Quality Air Force.)

Thirdly, common sense and sound management can always carry the day. However, the military seems destined to swallow a new management fad every 10 years or so (reference AFSO21). I don't scoff offhandedly at continuous improvement, but I do take harbor in fundamental military wisdom whenever confronted by glassy-eyed professionals smoothly rolling out such jargon as "best business practices" and "cutting waste" for military tasks.

4thly, many of your contributors refer to manpower cuts/drawdown in the AF as a cause of a death spiral. While the AF is certainly not as robust as in the go-go Cold War days, the "planes for people" thing has not materialized even close to the extent some complain about (show me your numbers…). Even the CSAF has backed away from the 40,000 position cuts envisioned to begin in 2 years ago at FY06 start. And as for munitions guys doing guard duty in OEF/OIF, let's not get too alarmed. All AF enlisted specialties are contributing to the GWOT as well as AEF augmentation (is it any less improper for F-15 crew chiefs to pull convoy duty or TCN in Afghanistan for 6 months?). When you have an enlisted force in which 12-15% never deploy (…never deploy, are not tied to a combat UTC) and the rest have deployed on three or four 120 day or 179 day tours within 4 years, you need to look at balancing the burden. I can assure you there is no shortage of volunteers to "get in the fight" and that often leads to duty outside a primary career fields.

And finally, keep on your scope that the US Army has asked the USAF for up to 5,000 combat support role troops (ILO) in FY07/08 so Army ground commanders can put more rifles on the ramparts. The AF is filling those requested support roles for the Army, often doing Army combat functions with very little/no combat experience. As a Joint Force, we are in a time of transition as we adapt to a significantly changed horizon; recall that RMA was upended by GWOT. To use an analogy, it is wise to move cautiously when turning an aircraft carrier around in swift, deep river. We are not a nation at war, we are a military and treasury at war. Stay informed. Paul D.

AV-O said...

Did I say Personal Reliability Program? Of course I meant Personnel Reliability...for the record. Paul D

Spook86 said...

Chief--First of all, thanks for your many years of service to the Air Force and our nation. I meant to reply with your earlier response, but got sidetracked; ah, the perils of concurrent blogging and work.

First I agree with many of your points. The Air Force's mania for adopting the "latest" civilian management theory is nothing short of absurd. For any management system to work, you've got to (a) ensure it fits your organization, and (b) give it time. One of my former supervisors (now retired, like me), was one of the early participants in the QAF craze. At that point in the game, the AF was paying "trainers" from Xerox to teach TQM to our personnel. One of the first things the corporate guys said in their first training workshop at ACC was: "Good luck with our expeience TQM has never worked effectively in government or non-profits." But, we plowed ahead anyway and spent millions on QAF, until someone decided that AFSO 21 was better.

However, I would hope that someone at Minot didn't use these initiatives as a pretext for streamlining nuclear handling/protection/inventory procedures. As I learned during my days in SAC, there are functions/programs that benefit from voluminous guidance, and nuclear weapons would certainly fall in that category.

As for the difficulty in "clearing" the current generation of volunteers, I'm quite familiar with that problem. Go back a couple of months, and you'll find a long post on our "narrowing" recruiting base. As the Commander of the U.S. Navy Reserve recently noted, only 28% of the young people in our primary recruiting demographic (17-24 year-old-males) meet the requirements for military service. And, out of that 28%, we've got to find enough who can hold a TS/SCI security clearance, or meet the criteria for PRP.

However, I'm not ready to water down the standards for either program. Those standards exist for a reason, and they've served us well for more than 40 years. Somehow, we've got to change society's notion of what is/isn't acceptable behavior, with emphasis on the long-term consequences of such conduct. Unfortunately, when corporate America (and our society as a whole) excuse--or even condone--behavior that the military won't accept, then we're paddling upstream. Our armed forces will always be a reflection of the nation they represent, but they should reflect the best of what this country has to offer, not the worst.

Incidentally, I think that adherence to standards is a big reason that the Marine Corps has been able to meet its recruiting goals, despite the adverse publicity associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It may be an "apples-and-oranges" proposition in comparing the Air Force (or a particular career) field to the USMC, but I think there's a lesson to be learned in the Corps does business.

As for the impact of those "planes-for-people" decisions, I'd say the jury's still out. The consequences any accessions cutback (or various "early out" programs) isn't felt right away; you see it a decade down the road when that young person who couldn't join the AF (or was encouraged to leave after the first enlistment) isn't there as an E-6 or E-7 line chief, or shop supervisor. The samme holds true on the officer side; yes, the cutbacks trim some fat (and get rid of some marginal performers), but I've also watched a lot of good folks walk out the gate, people who were clearly destined for greater things within the USAF.

I do agree that the AF--and the rest of the services--need to do a better job in sharing the deployment burden. I've posted some of the numbers before; something like 53% of the USAF has never deployed in support of the GWOT, so that means a lot of the same troops keep going down range.

Finally, in your previous reply, you opined that the other Chief who offered his thoughts on problems in the PRP system was engaging in a lot of "VFW Hall talk," one of those guys who tried to fix the system, but no one would listen.

As a point of amplification, I've known that particular E-9 for more than 20 years, and he's the real deal, one of the Chiefs who deserved the rank, title and the authority that goes with it. As a SEA at a munitions base in USAFE during the late 90s, he cleaned up an absolute cesspool of lousy management, substandard training, and disregard for the troops and their living/working conditions. Interestingly enough, these conditions had been ignored by one of the Chief's predecessors, who's now the CMSAF.

In fact, this particular Chief hit a "glass ceiling" in his own career because he refused to compromise on standards and told the commanders what they needed to hear--not what they wanted to hear. He's one of the finest enlisted leaders that our Air Force has produced, and it was a sad day when he called it quits.

Always enjoy your responses to my posts...

AV-O said...


Thanks for a thoughtful response. I do not advocate lowering the bar to meet mission needs. However, we (as an AF) are a reflection of the demographic and, as such, should recognize and address the societal 'tones' seeping in. I spent the bulk of my career overseas, including two tours on MAJCOM staff (when it still mattered)--I know of the Chief(s) you speak (retired and still active). My point is that it is helpful to bring considered analysis to any discussion on crucial topics such as national defense, defense policy, service recommendations, even when we examine perceptions of same. It is the minimum we can do with our experience--even if only one person reads it, have it count. No insult intended to my fellow Chief, it just struck me as a typical GI blamestorming about "them". And I never mentioned TQM...that one is on you! Paul D.

Public Citizen said...

Why do you assume this was an accident?

Minot sometimes sorties to the mid-east.

This was likey pre-positioning for anticipated actions against Iran and somebody at Minot did the heroic thing and spilled the beens.

Wake up!