by Nate Hale
Three senior Air Force officers and a retired general will testify on Capitol Hill next week, briefing results of recent investigations into the accidental transfer of nuclear weapons between bases in North Dakota and Louisiana--and the service’s efforts to prevent similar mishaps in the future.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing on the matter next Tuesday, five months after a B-52 bomber mistakenly carried six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota, to Barksdale AFB, Shreveport Louisiana. Technicians assigned to Minot's 5th Bomb Wing were supposed to remove the warheads before the missiles were transferred, but various inspection and custodial measures failed, leading to the nation’s worst nuclear weapons incident in almost 30 years.
Lieutenant General Darrell J. Darnell, the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, Space and Information Operations, is one of four senior officials listed on the witness list for next week’s hearing. General Darnell is expected to answer committee members’ questions about the service’s revised procedures for storing, handling and accounting for nuclear weapons, implemented in the wake of the Minot incident.
The Senate panel will also hear from three other senior officers—including a former Commander of Strategic Air Command—who have investigated the accident. Major General Douglas Raaberg, who conducted the initial probe of the mishap, is scheduled to present his findings to the committee during Tuesday's hearing. Raaberg currently serves as Director of Operations for Air Combat Command, parent organization for the units involved in the incident.
Senators will also receive testimony from Major General Polly Peyer, who led a Blue Ribbon commission that also studied the incident. General Peyer is one of the service's senior logistics experts and a veteran aircraft maintenance officer. She will be followed at the witness table by retired General Larry Welch, who performed an independent investigation of the incident. Welch, who is President and CEO of the Washington-based Institute for Defense Analysis, served as SAC Commander in the mid-1980s, directing the nation’s nuclear bomber and ICBM forces.
Much of the testimony at the Senate hearing will be provided behind closed doors, an indication of the mishap’s sensitivity, and the secrecy that surrounds the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Sources familiar with the various investigations suggest that the Air Force testimony will focus on procedural, administrative and training failures that led to the accident, and the corrective measures implemented to fix those problems.
The Air Force recently implemented a revised, 152-page operating instruction that provides more detailed guidance for nuclear weapons handling, storage and accounting procedures. While the Minot mishap is not mentioned in the new regulation, the incident clearly provided the impetus for more detailed procedures.
It’s unclear if next week’s hearing will touch on wider issues that may have contributed to the accident. Experts interviewed for a recent In From the Cold series on the Minot incident expressed concern that Air Force “reforms” do not address underlying problems, such as decreased emphasis on the nuclear mission, declining experience levels among nuclear technicians, and the perception that nuke specialists represent a “drain on resources,” because their skills don’t support the war on terror.
According to one retired senior NCO—a veteran of three decades as a nuclear weapons technician and manager—efforts to minimize the handling and maintenance of actual weapons have created a sense of complacency. And he's not convinced that current fixes will solve that problem.
“I don’t care how much you pretend that a piece of metal is a nuclear weapon, it’s not, and the airmen know it.” he observed. “That problem was compounded at Minot by the fact that they were moving ACM (Advanced Cruise Missile) bodies. With no warheads in them, they are just cargo. They get the same security as any other piece of Air Force equipment. That just breeds more complacency.”
The former weapons technician believes the only thing that might prevent similar mishaps in the future is to “put the same emphasis SAC did on nuclear weapons.” In those days, he recalled, “We used to send every last nuke we had to the flightline so they could be uploaded on BUFFs (B-52s), paraded around the flightline, downloaded and brought back to the Weapons Storage Area. We never got complacent because we were moving real weapons around the base.”
Renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons control and accountability was evident in recent comments by Colonel Joel Westa, who took command of Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing in the aftermath of last year’s mishap. In an interview with the Associated Press, Westa said that he is “notified in advance of any changes in activity to the base’s arsenal, and he personally oversees many of the operations involving the movement of nuclear weapons.”
The retired weapons expert believes that such measures are a step in the right direction. But, he argues, without renewed emphasis on the nuclear mission—and adequate training and leadership in nuclear units—similar incidents could happen again.