As we detailed in late October, the 5th Bomb Wing (BMW) at Minot AFB, North Dakota faces a tough road in being recertified for its nuclear strike mission. The unit lost that certification in early September, after six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were inadvertently transferred from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on a B-52 bomber. To regain its certification for nuclear operations, the unit will undergo a series of tough inspections, over a relatively brief period of time.
The first of those evaluations, an Initial Nuclear Surety Insepction (INSI) was completed yesterday, and the results appear to be a mixed bag for the B-52 wing. While the unit apparently passed the inspection, the Minot Daily News reports that the 5th BMW will be "given more time" to prepare for the follow-on Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI), originally scheduled to begin on 23 January. A new date for that evaluation has not been set.
No reason was given for the extension, but there are at least two possible explanations. First, while the wing earned a passing grade during the INSI, inspectors may have discovered lingering problems which could affect the outcome of the second evaluation. Delaying the NSI for several weeks would give the 5th BMW more time to resolve issues highlighted during the first inspection.
There is also reported concern about the frenetic pace of efforts to re-certify the unit. Originally, both the 5th BMW and its parent organization, Air Combat Command, hope to complete the process by late January, less than three months after the new wing commander (and other key personnel) arrived on base. However, a number of positions remain unfilled, and that was apparently a key factor in pushing back the NSI.
The wing's chief of public affairs, Major Laurie Arellano, confirmed that the delay would be helpful in addressing personnel concerns:
“Getting this mission perfected and recertified is the No. 1 priority of the command and the wing,” Arellano said. “We are taking a holistic look at the wing. That includes ensuring that we fill leadership positions that are currently vacant and build the teams necessary, with the leadership in place to oversee the long-term changes.”
“The inspectors have determined we need more time to make the necessary changes and allow us to accomplish long-term solutions, including filling critical leadership billets that are currently vacant,” Arellano said. “We are thankful we can take the time needed rather than being forced into an artificial timeline, so the NSI will be postponed until the wing and the command are confident the right people and processes are in place.”
Comments about "critical leadership" and "team building" are likely references to personnel who lost their certification to work with (or around) nuclear weapons after the transfer incident. The Air Force reported that at least 65 officers and airmen were stripped of their Personal Reliability Program (PRP) certification because of the mishap; most were assigned to Minot, and many were maintenance specialists who service and load nuclear weapons. Restoring those personnel to PRP status--and getting them ready for the NSI--represents a critical step in prepping the wing for its next nuclear evaluation.
In a commentary posted on the the unit's official website, the 5th BMW's new commander, Colonel Joel Westa, emphasized the importance of upcoming inspections, and expressed a desire for his troops to excel--under the toughest possible conditions:
I am praying for an arctic clipper to drop down out of Canada and blanket our base with mind-numbing cold during our upcoming inspections. Why? So the inspectors, after giving us our passing grade and going back to the warmth of their homes, will shake their heads in amazement as they tell stories of the four or five days they endured here at Minot. Wrapped in blankets, they will huddle with their families around their fireplaces. While a gentle breeze chills the 50 degree temperature, they'll tell their kids about Minot's defenders standing guard, crew chiefs launching aircraft, munitions loaders braving the elements while uploading pylons, convoys moving missiles to the field with precision on windswept roads, bomber crews on ladders in the wind doing a thorough preflight, great dining hall folks serving at all hours of the night, 5th Logistics Readiness Squadron Airmen keeping vehicles operating in Arctic conditions...well, you get the picture--I could go on and on.
In the interim, members of the 5th BMW are laboring through 12-14 hour shifts, six days a week. Morale is said to be mixed. While most airmen welcome the chance to get the unit back on track, there is the expected grumbling about having to work through the holidays, then "show their stuff" in the bitter cold that Colonel Westa is hoping for.
ADDENDUM: One thing's for sure: the bomb unit's NSI is not being delayed because of Minot's winter weather. The 5th BMW's sister unit, the 91st Strategic Missile Wing, will receive its nuclear surety inspection, on schedule, next month.