by Nate Hale
For the second time in six months, the Air Force's troubled B-52 wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota has earned low scores on a nuclear surety inspection (NSI), raising new concerns about the unit's ability to perform its ultimate mission.
Minot's 5th Bomb Wing (BW) received an "Unsatisfactory" rating on a nuclear surety inspection from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), conducted between 17-25 May. In From the Cold obtained a copy of the inspection report from military sources, who requested anonymity.
A DTRA team evaluated the wing in 10 areas relating to its nuclear mission, including management and administration; technical operations, storage and maintenance facilities, security and supply support. While the 5th BW met inspection criteria in nine of the ten categories, it still received an overall failing grade, due to extensive discrepancies in nuclear security.
Inspection regulations dictate that units will receive a composite rating of unsatisfactory if they fail any of the inspection areas. The 5th BW received an "unacceptable" rating for its security efforts during the evaluation.
The failing grade from DTRA will not affect the bomb wing's recently-regained certification for nuclear operations. The wing's parent organization, Air Combat Command, restored the unit's authority to handle and maintain nuclear weapons in April, after it passed an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI). Thursday afternoon, a spokesman said the ACC Commander, General John Corley, had been briefed on the results and the wing would "retain certification for its strategic mission."
The 5th BW was stripped of its nuclear certification last September, after maintenance personnel mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52 bound for Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Authorities classified the incident as the nation's worst nuclear mishap in 30 years, an event that prompted the notification of President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
In the wake of that accident, the Air Force fired three senior officers at Minot and one at Barksdale. Lower-ranking personnel received various forms of non-judicial punishment, and more than 60 individuals lost their certification to work with nuclear weapons.
The incident also prompted three Air Force and Defense Department investigations, which led to more stringent procedures for handling, storing and protecting nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Minot wing began a concentrated effort to regain its certification, by passing the INSI and the subsequent NSI.
But the wing's road to re-certification has been bumpy. As this blog reported five months ago, the 5th BW's first INSI--conducted in December 2007--resulted in a grade of "Not Ready." While Air Force officials emphasized that it was not a failing grade, the score is the lowest possible for an initial nuclear surety inspection. As a result, the unit received more time to prepare for its preliminary evaluation, which was held in late March.
Given the gravity of nuclear operations, surety inspections are conducted by teams from the DTRA and the unit's major command, which (typically) issue separate reports. It is unclear if inspectors from Air Combat Command concurred with the DTRA findings, or what ratings they issued in various evaluation categories.
While the DTRA report carries significant weight in the military's nuclear community, the evaluation of a wing's parent or major command (MAJCOM) is considered the ultimate report card. And, on occasion, DTRA and MAJCOM inspectors disagree, as evidenced by a recent evaluation of Minot's other nuclear-capable unit, the 91st Space Wing.
Pentagon sources tell In From the Cold that the space unit received a "Not Ready" rating from DTRA, during in INSI administered in January. Agency inspectors based that grade on security deviations. However, members of the MAJCOM evaluation team (from Air Force Space Command) disagreed with that assessment, and gave the 91st passing grades in all areas.
The 5th Wing's recent NSI revealed a host of security problems. Inspectors from DTRA found five major deficiencies in unit security operations and 11 minor deviations. A description of those problems represents almost a third of the 14-page document.
According to DTRA evaluators, there were "numerous examples of escorted entry procedures into an exclusion area that were not followed during the inspection." Specific violations included a lack of metal detector screening for escorted personnel; a failure to search hand-carried items and inadequate logging procedures for individuals entering the exclusion zone.
Inspectors also observed serious deficiencies during a denial and recapture exercise. As outlined in the report, the wing's security forces control center did not immediately up-channel a Covered Wagon report, signifying a potentially serious (though simulated) nuclear incident.
Additionally, a security forces team also did not respond to their pre-designated fighting positions during a mock attack on the weapons storage, leaving part of the complex without fire support. The problems were compounded by a flight chief's inability to assume control of the situation and the failure to use authentication procedures during a duress incident.
Evaluators also found a number of discrepancies during an emergency entry exercise, including "a failure to use positive measures to preclude an adversary from entering the WSA, using emergency procedures to circumvent security." Minot personnel also forgot to search a departing vehicle that entered the weapons storage area during a simulated emergency, then neglected to follow the vehicle and search it after reached its destination.
Along with those write-ups, the DTRA report lists multiple problems during the inspection's aircraft regeneration phase. Inspectors noted that security forces personnel failed to search the undercarriages of seven aircraft during a purge of the parking area. They also found that security personnel neglected to investigate route vulnerabilities for a planned weapons movement.
In other cases, the performances of individual airmen were found lacking. One security specialist, posted as a Close Boundary Sentry (CBS) was playing video games on a cell phone during an exercise. Evaluators also discovered that an adjacent sentry was unaware of her duties and responsibilities.
Among the minor security discrepancies, inspectors found sentries in the weapons storage area who were unaware of security reporting and alert procedures. Security personnel in another flight were not familiar with nuclear surety terminology, including such basic concepts as the exclusion area and the two-person concept.
The extensive security problems prompted comments from the DTRA team chief, Navy Captain A.J. Camp, Jr. In Tab C of the report, Captain Camp wrote that "security forces' level of knowledge, understanding of assigned duties and response to unusual situations reflect a lack of adequate supervision."
"A review of [security forces] blotters of the past 90 days confirmed that leaders were unengaged with the proper supervision of airmen," he continued. Camp noted that the "average post visit" for senior leadership (above the flight level) was 90 minutes or less per visit, and only "15% of shifts in the weapons storage area" were visited in the last 90 days."
In response to the DTRA report, the 5th BW commander, Colonel Joel Westa, will submit a memorandum to the agency, certifying "measures initiated to preclude recurrence of the significant deficiencies." The DTRA assessment did not list a timeline for the unit's response.
A spokeswoman for the 5th BW, Major Elizabeth Ortiz, did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.
It is unclear if problems identified by DTRA inspectors would prompt leadership changes in the 5th Security Forces Squadron (SFS), charged with protecting the bomb wing and Minot AFB. The North Dakota installation actually has two security forces organizations, the 5th SFS and the 91st Security Forces Group (SFG), which is part of the space wing.
While the group is defends the space wing's Minuteman III ICBMS and launch control facilities--scattered 8,500 square miles of western North Dakota--the 5th SFS is responsible for security inside the base perimeter.
Experts contacted by this blog believe that some members of the security squadron will lose their certification to work around nuclear weapons under the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP). Depending on the number of security specialists who might be de-certified, the 5th BW might be forced to seek manning assistance from other units.
Colonel Westa, the bomb wing commander, has not spoken publicly about the NSI results. In a recent commentary, posted on the unit's official website, he praised wing organizations that have "turned it around" in recent inspections. The security forces squadron was not among those singled out for commendation.
Without the security deviations, the 5th BW would have likely earned a much higher grade from the DTRA. The wing received "Excellent" ratings in five of the inspected areas, and "Acceptable" scores in three others. Regulations require a MAJCOM evaluation of nuclear capable units every 18 months, and a DTRA inspection every five years.