Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back Under the Magnifying Glass

Air Force Times reports that the Air Combat Command (ACC) Inspector General Team will return to Minot on 25 March, for a repeat of the wing’s Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI). Inspectors will visit the unit a second time in mid-May, for a follow-on Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI).

Successful completion of both evaluations will allow the unit to resume its nuclear mission, suspended last September after six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were accidentally shipped to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on a B-52 bomber. The incident was described as the nation’s worst nuclear weapons incident in almost 30 years, and resulted in the firing of four senior officers and multiple investigations of the Air Force’s nuclear safety program.

The March INSI represents a repeat evaluation for members of the 5th BW. Members of the ACC IG team conducted the preliminary inspection at Minot in December, but discovered continuing problems with training records and the certification of nuclear weapons technicians. In From the Cold was the first media outlet to report that the 5th BW received a “not ready” rating during that inspection.

While not considered a failing grade, the “not ready” mark indicated that the bomb wing needed more time to prepare for its recertification. Originally, unit leaders—and senior Air Force officials—hoped that the 5th BW could complete required inspections as early as January.

At one point, inspectors planned to conduct the bomb wing’s NSI at the same time as Minot’s 91st Space Wing. The ICBM unit completed (and passed) its unit compliance inspection in mid-January. Results of its concurrent nuclear surety inspection have not been revealed. As recently as last November, the new commander of the bomb wing, Colonel Joel Westa, predicted that the wing might recertified by February, and there were some suggestions that the two wings might have their NSIs at the same time. The 5th BW last successful NSI was in 2006, when it earned high ratings.

The bomb unit’s “remake” of the INSI in late March is consistent with Air Force inspection policy, according to a retired senior non-commissioned officer with more than two decades of experience in the nuclear weapons career field.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the former weapons expert noted that the same procedures allow an on-the-spot re-inspection. But, given the problems discovered during the December INSI—and publicity surrounding the original mishap—he said it’s no surprise that the repeat inspection was pushed back to late March.

Officially, the Air Force has not disclosed the results of the 5th BW’s INSI. But sources familiar with the situation at Minot told In From the Cold that many of the problems stemmed from poor leadership by senior NCOs in the bomb unit’s munitions maintenance squadron. At least five were fired in the wake of the transfer incident, resulting in the transfer of other NCOs to take their place.

According to the 5th BW’s Chief of Public Affairs, Major Laurie Arellano, those positions have now been filled, and the new NCOs are “having a positive impact” on maintenance quality assurance and training programs. Major Arellano said the wing was “not at all disappointed” with the pace of filling those key positions.

She also emphasized that there “was no set schedule” for re-certifying the wing, despite initial plans for inspections in early 2008. “The process for recertification isn’t set on a date,” she observed, “it’s based on the determination that we are ready and capable to successfully conduct the mission.

Major Arellano indicated that the unit has made substantial progress in recertifying individual airmen for the nuclear mission. She said that “most” of the technicians who can be recertified have regained the necessary qualifications. Airmen who can’t regain their certification are being reassigned, she reported. As many as 60 technicians lost their nuclear certification in the wake of the accidental transfer. Most were assigned to the 5th BW.

As the B-52 unit prepares for upcoming inspections, the Air Force has concluded three major assessments of its nuclear safety program. Results of those inquiries—two internal reviews and a DoD investigation--were briefed to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

Four Air Force generals testified before the panel and all agreed that the service had lost focus on its nuclear mission. To remedy that problem—and prevent future mishaps like the one at Minot—the service has unveiled 132 recommendations, aimed at improving the security and accountability of nuclear weapons.

A retired Air Force nuclear weapons inspector (a veteran of past evaluations at Minot and other bomber bases) praised the candor of the reports provided to Congress and the Pentagon. “I’m actually surprised that the assessment is as honest as it is. They do seem to level the blame squarely at leadership for allowing nuclear expertise and focus to lapse throughout the Air Force." The former inspector also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

During their Congressional testimony in mid-February, senior Air Force leaders suggested that the nuclear inspection process needs modification. Retired General Larry Welch, who headed a review by a Defense Science Board task force, believes the current evaluation process is too narrow. As Air Force Times reports:

“Our report found that the problem with the inspections is the scope is just too limited,” Welch told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12. “Over time, the scope has been more and more limited, to the point where they really don’t demonstrate operational readiness.”

The Air Force also is taking its most comprehensive look yet at the breadth and depth of the nuclear surety inspection process, said Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, who directed the Air Force’s blue ribbon review into the incident, which produced an internal report Feb. 12.

Lt. Gen. Daniel Darnell, deputy chief of staff for air, space and information operations, told senators that now nuclear units might receive less warning before an NSI takes place.

“We think that there may be some value to a limited-notice inspection for units,” he said.
An executive summary of the blue ribbon review report, obtained by Air Force Times, said Peyer’s team of 30 airmen visited 29 locations and interviewed 822 people. The report criticized the inspection process, the waning focus on the nuclear mission, the lack of experience in the ranks and the aging equipment used to maintain the nuclear stockpile.

“We did see a diminished focus on the nuclear mission,” Peyer said in an interview. “You can kind of trace it back to 1991 and the end of the Cold War.”

The Air Force referenced the blue ribbon review’s 36 recommendations as justification for adding 11 items, totaling $99.5 million, to the unfunded requirements list it sent to Congress.

These requests, designed to shore up nuclear security, include nuclear test equipment, intercontinental ballistic missile transporters, UH-1N helicopters to monitor missile fields and nuclear munitions storage trailers.

But funding for those requirements may be delayed. Air Force officials said the requests can’t be included in the 2009 budget, which has already been submitted.

During the public portion of the Senate testimony, several lawmakers expressed concern over the erosion of nuclear safety. Documents cited by Air Force Times indicate that problems with nuclear weapons expertise, safety and accountability began in the early 1990s, when Strategic Air Command was dissolved, and the service’s long-range nuclear forces were split between ACC and Air Force Space Command.

Since then, the number of units failing nuclear inspections has increased. According to AFT, only half of the units receiving NSIs in 2003 passed their evaluation—an “all-time low,” according to the Air Force Inspector General. A decade earlier, USAF nuclear units in Europe faced similar problems, with only seven of twelve passing their NSIs in 1993.

While various investigations and reviews have focused on “institutional” issues, including declining experience among weapons technicians and decreased focus on the nuclear mission, unit commanders are also emphasizing individual responsibility. Earlier this month, Colonel Henry Andrews, Commander of the 498th Armament Systems Wing Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, sent the following e-mail to his troops:

“From a root cause perspective, the precipitating events for the [Blue Ribbon Review] were not about leadership, unit-to-unit relationships, mission focus, culture, history, safety, surety, training, force development, transportation, accountability, tracking, scheduling, security, organization, or resources. In point of fact, the events happened due to the lack of personal discipline exhibited by the ‘Individual Airmen’ involved.”

The 498th is charged with the sustainment of nuclear munitions and cruise missiles in the Air Force inventory.

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