by Nate Hale
Air Force security experts are expressing surprise and frustration over recently-identified nuclear security failures at Minot AFB, North Dakota.
Those deviations, highlighted in a recent nuclear surety inspection (NSI) by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) resulted in an overall failing grade for Minot’s B-52 unit, the 5th Bomb Wing.
Agency inspectors discovered five major and eleven minor nuclear security failures during their evaluation, which ended on May 25th. The DTRA team also uncovered eleven less-serious security problems during the nine-day inspection. While the 5th BW earned passing grades in nine of ten evaluation categories, the high number of security violations gave the unit a composite rating of “Unsatisfactory.”
Results of the Minot inspection sent shock waves through the tight-knit Air Force security forces (SF) community. Current and former security forces officers and NCOs contacted by In From the Cold offered blunt criticism of Minot’s 5th Security Forces Squadron, which is charged with protecting the base, its B-52 bombers and Minot’s nuclear weapons storage area (WSA).
“I think the DTRA team was being nice in such areas as emergency entry and exclusion area entry,” said a former security forces senior NCO, who now works for a defense contractor.
“Personally, I would have hit them harder. Access is a critical failure in anyone’s book. You cannot pass the ‘Pearly Gates’ [of a WSA] if you don’t have the right to be there." The retired NCO—and the other experts—spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“They did not train, practice, or were even aware of what they were doing,” he continued. “A CBS [Close Boundary Sentry] on post with a cell phone? Who in the hell allowed that crap to happen? Not on my watch."
The former security forces superintendent was referring to an incident highlighted in the DTRA report, when evaluators watched a security specialist play games on a cell phone during a critical exercise event.
Another senior NCO, who currently serves as a superintendent of a security forces unit, was even tougher in his assessment. “I wouldn’t trust those cops with guarding the bicycle rack in front of the base pool, let alone the nation’s alert resources,” he said.
“The leadership [of Minot’s security forces squadron] should have been fired and departed the base with the inspection team," he continued. "This is obviously a systemic problem, starting at the top.”
The retired security forces superintendent concurred. “Leadership was AWOL. Not involved, no one gave a s—t about the troops. The folks who allowed this to happen were the mid-level NCOs, the senior NCOs and the officers who did not craft any strategy.”
A senior Air Force civilian, with decades of security experience, described seeing similar problems through the years. “When you don’t have adequate supervision at all levels (mid-level NCOs on up), then you have no concern about the mission."
"Why did this happen? It’s a common theme played out in the SF business,” he said. “The officers are beating the crap out of the enlisted because they are 'stupid,' and the enlisted screw the ‘O’s by not performing."
At least two of the experts interviewed by this blog recommended a radical step for fixing security problems at Minot—a 90-day lockdown. Under that approach, the inspection team remain at the base until all problems had been fixed and the unit is deemed capable of independent operations.
Lockdowns were a common technique during the heyday of Strategic Air Command, which controlled the Air Force’s strategic nuclear forces until the early 1990s. But in recent decades, the service has moved away from that approach, due in part to the high cost of sending personnel to supervise a failing unit for extended periods.
Air Force nuclear experts say that one of the last lock-downs occurred at Aviano AB, Italy in the early 1980s, after that installation failed an NSI. There was reportedly a near-lockdown at a U.S. base in Greece a few years later, when another failure appeared in the offing. Plans for the lock-down were cancelled when that unit scraped by with a minimum passing grade.
In light of the NSI findings, the bomb wing's security forces unit is facing possible leadership changes and other personnel actions. A spokesman for the Air Combat Command (ACC), the wing's parent organization, said Thursday that ACC is "working with Minot leadership to provide specific expertise and manning to assist the wing with working identified areas of improvement."
During a separate interview with Air Force Times, the same spokesman said there are "no plans to fire any 'key personnel' now. However, he did not rule out possible punitive action against other airmen. Current and former security forces personnel interviewed by this blog said that leadership changes in the 5th SFS are "inevitable," given the number of failures identified by inspectors.
The security violations not only prompted a failing grade for the bomb wing, they also overshadowed the accomplishments of other personnel. The unit earned passing grades in nine of ten inspection categories, and received "Excellent" marks in five areas.
In his first public statement on the inspection, Colonel Joel Westa, Commander of the 5th BW said “Overall their assessment painted a picture of some things we need to work on in the areas of training and discipline.”
Despite the security problems, the B-52 unit will retain its certification for nuclear operations. The ACC Commander, General John Corley, reinstated the wing's nuclear certification in early April, after it passed an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI). Because failures in the recent NSI were largely concentrated in a single area, Corley determined that the 5th BW will remain certified for nuclear operations.
In the interim, members of the bomb wing will continue to practice for a nuclear surety inspection. An evaluation team from ACC will revisit the base in August, to determine if problems have been corrected. A repeat NSI will be held sometime after the ACC inspection.
Members of the ACC Inspector General (IG) team conducted their own evaluation of the 5th BW during the same period as the DTRA evaluation. Results of the ACC inspection have not been disclosed. An ACC spokesman said that the evaluation also revealed "areas of strength" in the B-52 unit, noting high ratings in several inspection categories.
The recent series of evaluations at Minot were prompted by a nuclear mishap in August of last year. During that incident, 5th BW personnel mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto a B-52 that flew to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. While the nuclear warheads remained under Air Force control, they were considered "unaccounted for" during a 30-hour period that ended with their discovery at Barksdale.
Four senior officers were fired as a result of that accident, considered the nation's worst nuclear mishap in almost thirty years. Scores of other personnel received other forms of punishment, or lost their certification to work with nuclear weapons.