These are tough times for the men and women assigned to the Air Force's nuclear units.
After a pair of high-profile mishaps involving nuclear weapons and components in 2007 and 2008, the service has implemented a series of fixes, and is demanding strict accountability from personnel who operate, maintain and protect that nation's most devastating weapons systems.
But the demand for accountability has, in nuclear terms, created its own fallout. A beefed-up inspection program has resulted in more failures, additional scrutiny on key personnel, a new wave of commander firings and more questions about the relative "health" of the Air Force's nuclear enterprise.
While these issues are hardly new, they have received renewed focus over the past two months. The commanders of the 5th Bomb Wing and the 91st Missile Wing--both located at Minot AFB, North Dakota--were fired in October, amid continuing problems in those nuclear units. In both cases, senior officials said they "lost confidence" in the abilities of Colonel Christopher Ayers (who led the missile unit) and Colonel Joel Westa, Commander of the 5th Bomb Wing.
Both Westa and Ayers were cited for various problems during their watch, ranging from accidents involving nuclear support vehicles (in the case of the 91st), to failed nuclear surety inspections in both wings. Westa's dismissal came almost two years after he arrived at Minot, replacing Colonel Bruce Emig, who was fired in the wake of an August 2007 incident, involving the inadvertent transfer of nuclear weapons from the North Dakota base to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.
While Colonel Westa led the bomb wing's successful effort to regain its nuclear mission certification, problems in a recently-activated B-52 squadron--including another failed nuclear surety inspection--proved to be his undoing. Westa retired from the Air Force in late November, a month after his dismissal.
Colonel Ayers is still on active duty, but his prospects for a new command (and promotion) are virtually nil. Ayers was sacked in mid-October, after a series of incidents raised doubts about his ability to lead the missile wing. During Colonel Ayers' tenure, the 91st failed a nuclear inspection; there were security incidents involving launch codes and a plans safe, and missile vehicles were involved in two highly-publicized accidents.
During the latest mishap--which occurred in August--an airmen lost control of a missile component vehicle, causing it to overturn. The driver told investigators he was trying to swat a bug when the truck went off the road.
Meanwhile, morale in Air Force nuclear units has plummeted. A senior security official, with years of experience in the service's nuclear enterprise, believes that a "climate of fear" now exists in many nuclear wings. With a return to no-notice inspections, airmen worry that evaluators can show up on any given day and end their careers over a single mistake.
"They feel they are under a microscope and it's understandable," the official said. In a technical sense they are 'successful' every day, with one very public and inexcusable exception. By that I mean there are no nukes lost/stolen, no nukes launched inadvertently, but there is no credit for that since it is the expected outcome. The only attention they get is failure."
"It would be hard on anyone, but again for most of these guys/gals this is their first 'real' job and their first exposure to the military," he continued. "They joined the AF for the adventure aspect, not to sit out in the snow."
The security expert told In From the Cold that it may take "five years" to fix problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise--"assuming we're on the right track, and I'm not 100% sure we are." But he also noted that there are additional steps, including policy changes and new technology, that could improve surety and security in nuclear operations.
These changes, the official stated, would "reduce the number of moving parts" in nuclear units, and reduce the possibility of serious mistakes. However, the "timeline for getting these things approved and implemented is not quick," he observed.
The security official said Air Force leader have been "surprised" by the recent rash of failed nuclear inspections, including those at Minot. But he compared the trend to a police crackdown in high-crime areas.
"What usually shows in the data is higher overall rates of crime because there are more police on the streets interacting with the community and taking reports of crime. Ultimately, the increase in police will improve the crime stats, but in the short term things can actually appear worse (which is when it will get the most attention)."
"I think this is kind of what is happening with the nuke world," he continued. "It seems like there are more problems because people are really looking for the first time in half a generation, but ultimately things will get better."
The official also predicted that cuts in the U.S. strategic arsenal (favored by the Obama Administration) might not lead to a corresponding erosion in nuclear standards. He noted that operations and maintenance for nuclear units remains well funded, and proposed reductions in weaponry wouldn't mean a "dollar-for-dollar" decline in support functions. The security official also noted that a smaller nuclear inventory would require fewer personnel, reducing training requirements for restoring the nuclear enterprise.
The security expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said one of the biggest issues facing nuclear units is the "mind-numbing" nature of security operations. "The comparison I used to give was "being a mall security guard at a mall with no stores and no customers. You are defending something that is completely abstract, and there's no visual connection to why you do the job."
Despite continuing problems in its nuclear wings, the Air Force is proceeding with plans to transfer those units to the new Global Strike Command (GSC). The service's three ICBM wings joined strike command earlier this week, and three bomber units--including the 5th at Minot--will follow in February. The leader of Global Strike Command has expressed "confidence" in the leadership of those units.
As the missile units transitioned to their new parent command, the USAF was confirming more difficulties in its nuclear enterprise. Last week, the service admitted that the 377th Air Base Wing and the 489th Nuclear Systems Wing, both located at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, failed their nuclear surety inspections last month. It is unclear if the wing commanders will retain their jobs.
The 489th maintains nuclear warheads and cruise missiles, while the 377th is charged with training and security for various nuclear inspection organizations.