Nuclear Incident Resulted in Less Severe Punishment for Higher-Ranking Officers
by Nate Hale
Commanders involved in last year's nuclear mishap at Minot AFB, North Dakota received a milder form of non-judicial punishment than lower-ranking personnel who were also implicated in the incident.
In From the Cold has learned that seven higher-ranking officers received Letters of Admonishment for their role in the accident, while a Captain, two Staff Sergeants and two Senior Airmen were given Article 15s.
While the admonishment letters and Article 15s are considered non-judicial punishment, the latter penalty may include multiple sanctions, including loss of pay, additional duty, and for enlisted members, a reduction in grade. Letters of Admonishment are placed in an officer's personnel records, virtually eliminating any chance for promotion or advancement. However, they do not include a pay forfeiture or rank reduction that often accompany an Article 15.
Terms of the non-judicial punishment imposed under the Article 15s received by personnel from Minot and Barksdale were not disclosed. The Captain who received the Article 15 was assigned to the Louisiana base; the enlisted members were part of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot. Commanders who were given the Letters of Admonishment served at Minot and Barksdale.
While the Air Force has acknowledged that some personnel were punished for the nuclear mishap, it has never provided a full list, citing legal and privacy concerns. The sanctions list was contained in a prepatory briefing for Michael Donley, who has been nominated as the next Air Force Secretary, and General Norton Schwartz, tapped as the service's new Chief of Staff.
According to the listing, compiled by the Air Force Judge Advocate General's office, all of the officers that received admonishment for the nuclear incident were in the grade of Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel. Five served as unit commanders and lost their positions as a result of the incident. No officer above the rank of Colonel were faulted for the incident, although Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne and the Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley, later lost their jobs because of continuing problems in the service's nuclear program.
The punishment list provides the most complete accounting of sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the nuclear mishap, which occurred almost eleven months ago. During that incident, six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were accidentally loaded onto a B-52 at Minot and flown to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.
The error was not discovered until hours after the bomber landed at Barksdale, prompting a series of emergency notifications to senior officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Bush.
Word of the incident prompted a series of Air Force and DoD investigations--and immediate personnel changes at Minot and Barksdale. The commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot, Colonel Bruce Emig, was removed from his post, along with the maintenance group commander, Colonel Cynthia Lundell and the leader of the 5th Munitions Maintenance Squadron.
Also dismissed was the commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale, Colonel Todd Westhauser, and one of his subordinates, who ran the active-duty B-52 squadron at the base. Westhauser's operations group "owned" the bomber and the crew that mistakenly flew the missiles to Barksdale.
After the mishap, observers suggested that a number of personnel could face non-judicial punishment or even a courts-martial on more serious charges. One unnamed Air Force official told the Washington Post last October http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/17/AR2007101702300_pf.html that the expected sanctions "would be the most severe ever brought [by the service] in connection with the handling of nuclear weapons."
But no Air Force members faced a courts-martial over the nuclear incident. While Emig, Lundell, Westhauser and the other, unnamed, commanders face dim prospects for advancement, all remain on active duty, and will be eligible to retire with full pension benefits. The junior personnel who received Article 15s also remain in the service, although the punishment will make it difficult, if not impossible, to complete their Air Force careers.
The Letters of Admonishment were issued by General John D.W. Corley, the Commander of Air Combat Command (ACC). General Corley assumed leadership of the service's largest command last October, about six weeks after the mishap at Minot.
Corley then asked Lieutenant General Norman Seip, the Commander of 12th Air Force, to review the matter and determine if any service members should face more serious charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. General Seip decided that none of the individuals would face courts-martial charges, but he did initiate Article 15s against the Barksdale Captain (part of the B-52 crew), along the airmen and NCOs assigned at Minot.
A retired Air Force security specialist said the number of individuals punished was surprisingly small, given the gravity of the nuclear mishap. He also expressed surprise at the level of punishment imposed, noting that many observers expected personnel to face a court-martial because of their mistakes. The former security specialist spoke with In From the Cold on the condition of anonymity.
Others viewed the sanctions as an example of "different spanks for different ranks," the old military axiom that suggests junior personnel receive more severe punishment than higher-ranking military members. One retired Chief Master Sergeant, who served as a senior enlisted advisor in a nuclear munitions unit, said the differences in punishment represented a "double standard."
"It's B.S. to think that an Letter of Admonishment for an officer is the same as an Article 15 for enlisted," he observed. "The same punishment should be served to all who serve."
Ironically, the number of Article 15s resulting from the original nuclear accident was smaller than the number imposed after Minot's 5th Bomb Wing recently flunked its Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI). Eight members of the unit's 5th Security Forces Squadron received Article 15s in May, and five more received the same form of non-judicial punishment in June, according to information released by the base. Many of those Article 15s are believed related to security failures discovered during the NSI, which resulted in a failing grade for the wing.
Along with the individuals who received non-judicial punishment, more than 60 personnel at Minot were temporarily stripped of their certification to work with nuclear weapons. All but five have since re-earned that qualification.
The legal summary prepared for Mr. Donley and General Schwartz also revealed that no one has yet been punished for a subsequent nuclear incident at Hill AFB, Utah. During that episode, components for an ICBM's nuclear warhead were inadvertently shipped to Taiwan. According to the report, potential personnel sanctions will be determined after a final review of the matter.