Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Passing Grade

Officially, the Air Force doesn't publicly discuss the results of Operational Readiness Inspections (ORIs) or Nuclear Surety Inspections (NSIs). The policy is based on a long-standing belief that discussing a unit's particular strengths--or weaknesses--would divulge valuable information to particular adversaries.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Leaders of the 62nd Airlift Wing, stationed at McChord AFB, Washington, had no problem discussing their recently-completed NSI. As you might have guessed, the 62nd passed their evaluation with flying colors, the first Air Force unit to receive a satisfactory grade in recent months:

The 62nd Airlift Wing — the nation’s primary nuclear airlift force— passed its Defense Nuclear Surety Inspection on Jan. 7 after a weeklong review by Air Mobility Command inspectors.

It is the first successful nuclear inspection the Air Force has made public since two missile wings in Air Force Space Command failed their Nuclear Surety Inspections in November and December. The two NSI failures ended a year in which the Air Force saw at least five units fail their NSIs for only the fourth time since 1992, according to the Defense Department Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management.

Following the recent failures, 62nd Airlift Wing Commander Col. Jeffrey Stephenson said he was “elated not only for the Air Force but also my airmen” that AMC inspectors issued his wing an overall grade of “satisfactory” — the highest possible score — to the wing.

Airlift is often the "forgotten element" of nuclear operations, but it remains a vital component of the overall program. The wing's 4th Airlift Squadron is the only C-17 unit tasked to transport nuclear weapons. It's a mission with no margin for error, as affirmed by the squadron's nuclear airlift flight commander:

“It’s nice to be recognized for doing a good job,” said Maj. Jeffrey Meyers, the 4th AS PNAF flight commander. “As the PNAF unit in the Air Force, it is a responsibility the wing and the nuclear surety office take very seriously. Wing leadership has made it clear: Perfection is the standard.”

NSIs in an airlift wing aren't quite as demanding as similar evaluations in missile, bomber and tactical fighter units. Airlift units aren't tasked with the full range of nuclear activities, such as weapons maintenance. But the McChord NSI involved the entire wing, which supports the 4th Airlift Squadron through such functions as the Personnel Reliability Program, ensuring that personnel meet the requirements for working with nukes.

The 62nd has every reason to be proud of its inspection performance. But, given the USAF's inconsistency in discussing NSI results, we wonder if the wing would have been as candid in discussing unsatisfactory results. As we observed in a recent post, some Air Force units--notably the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana--have never disclosed the results of their evaluations, also conducted in recent months.

That's certainly their prerogative, but given recent troubles in the Air Force nuclear enterprise, we'd say that a little more transparency is in order. Units can report the results of their inspections without divulging details that could, potentially, jeopardize nuclear operations.

Releasing inspection grades would also provide confirmation that the service's nuclear program is on the road to recovery. At least five units failed their NSIs last year, despite a major overhaul within the enterprise. Congress--and the public--need some assurance that recent problems in nuclear operations, maintenance and security are being fixed.

ADDENDUM: We had a chance to work with airlift crews and mission planners in the early 1990s, during the scheduled removal of nuclear weapons from a foreign country. The operation was classified and required precise planning and execution. Weapons loading and movement were scheduled during "gaps" in enemy spy satellite coverage. The effort continued over a couple of months and was carried out flawlessly, thanks in no small measure to the C-141 crews that flew the missions, and the airlift planners that helped coordinate the operation.

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