The Hammer Falls
CNN is reporting that four officers--not five--have been relieved in connection with the incident, identifying them as the 5th Bomb Wing Commander (Minot), as well as the Commander of the 5th Maintenance Group and the 5th Munitions Maintenance Squadron, also based at Minot. The other officer reportedly dismissed from his post is the Commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale. The CNN report makes no mention of Minot's 5th Operations Group Commander, who was identified as one of the fired officers by sources we spoke with at ACC Headquarters.
If CNN's information proves accurate, the firing of the 2nd Operations Group Commander will potentially raise some eyebrows. The B-52 and crew involved in the accidental transfer were reportedly assigned to Minot, putting them under the charge of the 5th Operations Group. However, if the Barksdale ops group commander had control of the missile transfer and retirement process, that would provide potential grounds for dismissal.
On the other hand--as CNN notes--the Minot bomber crew had the final responsibility for checking the aircraft (and its missile payload) before departure. CNN reports that the Air Force investigation found at least five failures to verify and inspect the missiles, including a check by the B-52's radar navigator (bombardier) before the aircraft left Minot.
The Air Force will hold a press conference at 3 p.m. today, to discuss its investigation into the recent, accidental transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana. While the service has not revealed the results of that inquiry, its consequences are already being felt, with the reported dismissal of two senior officers involved in the incident.
Sources at Air Combat Command Headquarters tell In From the Cold that the Commander of the 5th Bombardment Wing (BMW) at Minot AFB, North Dakota, Colonel Bruce Emig, has been removed from his post, along with the commander of the 5th Operations Group, Colonel Parker Northrup III. Word of their dismissal began circulating at Minot and ACC Headquarters this morning. ACC, located at Langley AFB in Hampton, Virginia is the parent command for CONUS-based Air Force fighter and bomber units, including the 5th BMW.
A spokesman for the base public affairs office at Minot refused comment on the report, referring this blog to the ACC public affairs office. An ACC public affairs officer said he had no information on the reported firings, and expressed surprise at the Minot statement. The ACC spokesman indicated that details on the incident investigation--including disciplinary actions--would be provided at the news conference later today.
The apparent dismissal of Colonel Emig and Colonel Northrup came only one day after the Washington Post and other media outlets reported that a number of Air Force officers could be fired because of the mishap, considered the most serious breach of U.S. nuclear safety and accountability procedures in more than forty years.
Sources cited by the Post also suggested that criminal charges might be filed in connection with the incident, although they did not specify who might be targeted for possible legal action. The paper also reported that seven lower-ranking airmen had received Letters of Reprimand (LORs) in connection with the transfer. LORs are considered non-judicial punishment and are typically imposed for less-serious offenses.
The reported firings at Minot were not considered a surprise, given the circumstances surrounding the incident. It was a B-52 assigned to Minot's only B-52 squadron--part of the 5th Operations Group--that dispatched the bomber to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on 29 August, unaware that six missiles carried on the aircraft still had nuclear warheads. The missiles were being flown to Barksdale for de-commissioning.
While military and nuclear safety regulations dictated that the weapons be disarmed before transfer, the nuclear-tipped advanced cruise missiles were removed from their storage bunker, loaded onto the B-52 and flown to Barksdale, remaining on the aircraft parking ramp for another 10 hours before the warheads were discovered.
Air Force officials have emphasized that there was no chance of a detonation during the incident, although radioactive materials could have spilled if the aircraft had crashed. According to the Post, the warheads were accounted for during a 36-hour period that began with their removal from the storage bunker in Minot, and lasted until they were discovered at Barksdale.
Both Colonel Emig and Colonel Northrup are veteran B-52 pilots who served previous tours at Minot. Emig was chief of group plans and programs for the 5th BMW from 1999-2000, and he returned to Minot in June of this year as the wing commander. Northrup spent five years as a B-52 pilot and flight examiner at the North Dakota base (1990-1995). He took command of the 5th Operations Group in 2005, after tours at bases in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Korea.
Emig and Northrup were the second and third officers at Minot to lose their jobs over the transfer incident. The commander of the installation's Munitions Maintenance Squadron (MMS) was relieved from that post shortly after the mishap was disclosed in early September.
According to yesterday's Washington Post article, as many as five Air Force officers could be relieved of command in connection with the mishap. An Air Force official--speaking with the paper on the condition on anonymity--said that officers would be dismissed at both Minot and Barksdale. So far, there has been no word from the Louisiana base on dismissals related to the nuclear incident. Minot and Barksdale are home to the only remaining B-52 units in the U.S. Air Force. The massive, Cold War-era bombers are capable of carrying a variety of munitions, including nuclear bombs and missiles.