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?