To its credit, the Air Force certainly said the right things in last Friday's press conference, outlining the results of that six-week investigation into the accidental transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles between bases in North Dakota and Florida.
While emphasizing that the weapons were never outside military control--and that such incidents are exceedingly rare--Air Force officials noted that mistakes of that sort are simply intolerable, and outlined a program for preventing similar mishaps in the future. Elements of the plan include (a) the dismissal of seniors officers deemed culpable in the incident; (b) decertification of Minot's 5th Bomb Wing in critical, nuclear-related tasks; (c) the "punishment" of dozens of lower-ranking personnel involved in the mishap, many of whom were removed from the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which allows them to work with nuclear weapons; (d) "corrective actions to fix problems revealed by the inquiry--and return the 5th BMW to full operational status--and (e) a review of the recently completed-investigation, to determine if any criminal charges should be filed.
It certainly sounded like a comprehensive plan, particularly at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, when the Air Force press conference was held. The timing of that event was no accident; like other public (and private) institutions, the USAF learned a long time ago that "bad news" is best dispensed on a Friday afternoon or evening, when the media and and audience interest are at low ebb, in anticipation of the weekend. And, to no one's surprise, the media coverage produced by the press event focused on the firing of four senior officers at Minot and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, where the nuclear-armed B-52 landed. Other coverage highlighted the serious nature of the incident, deemed the worst breach of nuclear weapons security in more than 40 years.
But none of the articles--at least none that we've seen--spent much time on the underlying issues associated with the mishap. By all accounts, the inadvertent transfer of those nuclear-armed cruise missiles was a serious offense. Air Force officials described it as a serious violation of well-established regulations and protocols--a system that, in their words, has worked well for a long, long time. They also stressed the need for public confidence in our system for storing, protecting and transporting nuclear weapons. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the overall goal of the investigation is to "minimize" the chances for a similar mishap in the future.
That's all well and good, but (from what we've seen so far) there has been a focus on the "mechanics" of the Minot incident, and less regard for the institutional and cultural factors that may have influenced it. Firing three Colonels and a Lieutenant Colonel got everyone's attention, as did the flurry of LORs (Letters of Reprimand) handed out to lower-ranking personnel and the decision to remove 65 airmen--of all ranks--from the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), used to screen personnel who work with nuclear weapons. And, to drive home the "accountability" point, the service also decertified the 5th BMW on several nuclear-related tasks, leaving it unable to perform the full complement of combat missions. In light of the problems uncovered at Minot, such steps were inevitable, even welcome.
But they still don't answer the question of how that B-52 carrying six nuclear warheads flew from Minot to Barksdale, and no one knew the weapons were on board until they had been sitting on an aircraft ramp in Louisiana for almost 10 hours. The reasons for that failure go well beyond the failure of individual airmen or supervisors to conduct required checks. They suggest larger problems within the Air Force's nuclear weapons community--issues that must be addressed to prevent this sort of incident from happening in the future.
We'll begin with PRP, a topic that's been addressed frequently in this blog over the past two months. Various experts voiced concerns about how the program's been run since the mid-1990s; one retired Chief estimated that 25% of the personnel cleared for PRP shouldn't be in the program at all, due to personal or medical issues.
But, with commanders retaining the ability to "waiver" almost any sort of difficulty, more than a few "problem children" have wiggled through the system, improving manning levels, but creating additional headaches for commanders and other supervisors. We can only wonder what percentage of those 65 recently de-certified for PRP fell into that category, and what corrective measures (if any) are in place to keep them out of the program in the future. Beyond that, what steps does the Air Force propose to ensure that PRP standards are rigidly enforced?
The Minot incident also raises concerns about the Pentagon's evaluation program for nuclear-capable units. According to press reports, the 5th BMW earned high marks on a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) less than a year ago, and the wing's safety office received a command-level award for its work as well. Given the "lackadaisical attitudes" cited in the Air Force report, it seems rather odd that the NSI inspectors didn't detect that problem during their visit to Minot.
There's also the related issue of problems during those evaluations; Minot has failed an NSI within the last for years, and Barksdale achieved a minimum passing score during the same period. For both units, this lack of consistency--in an area that demands absolute, consistent adherence to standards--is disturbing, to say the least.
Indeed, there are indications that the seeds of the Minot incident were sown long before that failed inspection, or the recent, ill-fated B-52 flight to Barksdale. The Federal of American Scientists obtained a classified excerpt from the official history of Air Combat Command, the parent command of the 5th BMW. That history bemoaned declining standards for nuclear safety, security and accountability in 1998--nine years before the cruise missile debacle.
That was the same period when some of the Air Force's nuclear program managers began wondering about "shortcuts" in the PRP, with commanders "waivering" behavior that would (ordinarily) disqualify air and ground crews from working with nuclear weapons. It was also an era when some nuclear sites developed reputations as "hell holes," with troops volunteering for overseas, remote tours to escape them. A retired CMSgt who served at one of our nuclear bases in Europe recalls an influx of weapons specialists from Barksdale, who indicated that they would "do anything" to escape the Louisiana base.
Stories like that suggest long-term problems in some Air Force career fields (and installations) associated with nuclear weapons. And that represents the real "bottom line" for the current probe. Beyond fixing the obvious issues at Minot and Barksdale, the service must also address issues related to training, manning and personnel standards that are absolutely vital to any unit, particularly those that are nuclear-capable. Cutting corners on PRP or allowing young troops to deviate from checklists for weapons retirement have a way of coming back to bite you, as evidenced by the incident at Minot.
We have little doubt that the "fixes" outlined last Friday will remedy the problems discovered in North Dakota and Louisiana. But, based on what's been outlined so far, we're less convinced that the Air Force is taking a hard look at the long-term institutional issues that contributed to the mishap. Until those concerns are addressed, the service will still run the risk of another, serious incident involving "missing" nuclear weapons.