Newly-Released Report Raises Questions About Unit's Nuclear Readiness After the 2007 "Minot Incident"
by Nate Hale
Four years ago this month, an evaluation team from Air Combat Command arrived at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, to conduct a Limited Nuclear Surety Inspection of the 2nd Bomb Wing, the Air Force's largest B-52 unit.
But it was anything but a routine inspection. Events that unfolded just days earlier gave a new urgency to the evaluation, making it a bellwether for the Air Force's troubled nuclear enterprise.
Less than three weeks before the inspection team arrived at Barksdale, the 2nd Bomb Wing had been involved in one of the most serious nuclear incidents in the nation's history. On 29 August, one of the unit's B-52s began a 1,200 mile flight from Minot AFB, North Dakota to the Louisiana installation. The giant, eight-engine bomber was carrying six cruise missiles scheduled for deactivation. It was supposed to be a normal ferry mission, part of the planned retirement of early-model AGM-129 air-launched cruise missiles. Once at Barksdale, the missiles would be downloaded from the giant bomber, demilitarized and destroyed, in accordance with arms control protocols.
But unknown to crews at Barksdale, their counterparts at Minot had committed a grave error. The missiles slated for transfer to Louisiana had their nuclear warheads removed, a mandatory procedure before a ferry mission. But personnel at the North Dakota base mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped missiles onto the bomber. Amazingly, the mistake was never detected by teams at Minot that loaded the weapons; the 2nd BW crew that flew the B-52, or personnel at Barksdale that greeted the jet.
In fact, the nuclear warheads were not "discovered" until almost 12 hours later, when a Barksdale load crew arrived to remove the cruise missiles. By that time, the warheads had been officially "missing" for more than 36 hours, a period that included the previous evening at Minot, where the bomber sat, without required security measures, before the flight to Barksdale.
The incident was reportedly classified as Bent Spear, a term used to describe serious nuclear mishaps which may include breaches or violations of security and handling regulations. News of the incident was immediately briefed to senior Air Force officials; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President George W. Bush.
The military quickly launched a full-scale investigation of the mistaken transfer, and began punishing those deemed responsible for the incident. Within days of the mishap, rumors about firings and dismissals began to make the rounds.
And those rumors were not unfounded; as the official inquiry began to gather steam, the Air Force fired Colonel Bruce Emig (Commander of the 5th BW at Minot); Colonel Cynthia Lundell, commander of Minot's maintenance group, and Colonel Todd Westhauser, leader of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale. In that capacity, Westhauser "owned" the B-52 and crew that brought the nuclear warheads to the Louisiana base. Eventually, the discovery of other problems in the USAF's nuclear enterprise would result in the dismissal of the Air Force Secretary and the service's Chief of Staff, along with sanctions for dozens of lower-ranking personnel.
Against that backdrop, the 2nd BW faced the most critical LNSI in its history. For nine days (18-27 September), evaluators from ACC, shadowed by experts from Air Force Space Command and other federal agencies, inspected every element of the bomb wing's nuclear mission. Records were carefully screened; equipment was inspected and wing personnel demonstrated key elements of their unit's nuclear capabilities.
When it was over, the 2nd BW received an overall rating of "Satisfactory," and Air Force officials breathed a sign of relief. Had the Barksdale unit failed its LNSI, the nation's bomber leg of its nuclear triad would have been seriously crippled. Without Barksdale and Minot, America's nuclear bomber force would have been reduced to a handful of B-2 stealth bombers, based at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. But with Barksdale earning a passing grade, that unit could continue its nuclear mission and perform key tasks for the 5th BW as well, while the Minot unit worked to regain its nuclear certification.
But new questions are being raised about the results of the 2007 inspection at Barksdale. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed almost four years ago by "In From the Cold," the Air Force recently released a lightly-redacted version of the LNSI report. According to experts who reviewed the document at the request of this blog, the report details discrepancies that typically result in a failing grade for a unit.
In particular, they point to the 2nd BW's inability to properly load weapons and generate simulated nuclear sorties during the inspection. Section III of the 36-page report details prolonged efforts by 2nd BW crews to perform essential tasks, including an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) pylon upload; preparation of a ferry aircraft with one ALCM pylon and one advanced cruise missile pylon, and one complete aircraft generation, from weapons transfer through aircrew acceptance.
As noted in the inspection report, Barksdale personnel struggled mightily to complete their assigned duties. According to evaluators, the first attempt at aircraft generation was terminated after 14 hours, due to problems with weapons handling trailers and generators.
A second try at aircraft generations also failed. The exercise was initially delayed (due to uneven pavement under the B-52 weapons bay), prompting a relocation of the aircraft. As the exercise continued, crews experienced more equipment problems. The second attempt was finally halted at the 15-hour point, when "critical faults" were discovered during post-load checks.
During the next attempt, the 2nd BW attempted to generate two aircraft. The third B-52 was rejected due to a critical fault during post-load checks. Ground crews managed to generate the fourth bomber, but not before another equipment problem (with a lift arm) required a weapons demate/mate.
All told, Barksdale personnel spent more than 30 hours generating a single nuclear-capable aircraft. Yet despite the reported difficulties, the 2nd BW still received a "Satisfactory" grade for the Loading and Mating portion of the evaluation, a rating that left some nuclear experts stunned.
"Tell me this is a joke," said one retired Air Force weapons expert, with more than 20 years of nuclear experience. Pages 9 and 10 [of the report] are enough to result in automatic "Unsats" (unsatisfactory ratings). No pass, go to jail or whatever. If you can't load, you can't be inspected, and if you can't be inspected, you are UNSAT, he continued. "Don't waste the gas to send the team. Where the hell is the leadership?"
The weapons expert who reviewed the Barksdale report spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Another former expert was equally blunt in his criticism of the unit and the evaluation. "It's very, very difficult to believe they could receive a passing grade on any kind of inspection when they were unable to generate a single successful nuclear sortie until the fourth attempt," he said.
The retired Air Force official also observed that evaluators seemed to put most of the blame on faulty equipment--and not the crews that maintained it
"Members of the inspection team (and I'm sure the 2nd Bomb Wing) seem to want to attribute their inability to generate a sorties on equipment failures. However, the sheer amount of failure makes this very hard to accept," he said. "In theory, all of the vehicle inspection and checklist compliance pieces are supposed to ensure that equipment is in good working order. Clearly, in practice, that wasn't the case. It appears they were given a set of mulligans to account for equipment failures and ensure they were able to (eventually" generate a sortie."
The second expert--who also requested anonymity--expressed amazement at another apparent trend in the report. He said the document repeatedly "spins" the lack of a negative finding into a positive one, and offered several examples:
"On page 11, paragraph 2 of the report, 'the weapons loading community overcame numerous equipment malfunctions,' instead of being held accountable for poorly-maintained equipment, they are lauded for how they dealt with failures," he commented.
The expert also chuckled at a paragraph praising Barksdale personnel for following required communications security (COMSEC) practices. "This is ridiculous," he said, "They just described compliance. You can't comply "exceptionally."
As a third example of "spin," the nuclear expert cited a paragraph on page 14 of the report, noting that Barksdale had only one "incident" of a close-in sentry abandoning his post. "Having a sentry leave his position is a huge issue," the former official observed. "They frame his 'one failure' as 'well, it was just one failure and categorize it as a [unit] strength."
The inspection report also highlighted problems that may have contributed to nuclear incident that occurred in late August of 2007. Evaluators found that 2nd BW personnel "did not ensure that markings for ferry payloads and Type 3 trainers were applied or legible prior to use for payload mate to missile." It is unknown what markings--if any--were applied to the nuclear missiles mistakenly transferred from Minot to Barksdale, or if crews at the Louisiana base failed to recognize payload markings when the B-52 arrived.
Overall, the 2007 LNSI at Barksdale evaluated management and performance in 17 different areas related to the unit's nuclear mission. The 2nd BW earned "Excellent" ratings in 10 categories, five were judged as "Satisfactory," and only two were rated "Marginal." Those areas, Program Management and Administration and Unit Administration, received low marks for a critical finding, the certification of non-qualified aircrew members as mission ready. Inspectors found that the unit failed to ensure proficiency in all nuclear-related events before declaring initially-qualified aircrew and "combat mission ready."
The report lists more than 30 findings during the Barksdale inspection, including those serious issues in weapons loading/aircraft generation and aircrew certification. That raised concerns about pressure on the evaluators to generate a satisfactory score, and prevent de-certification of the 2nd Bomb Wing. The former Air Force official believes "external pressures were driving inspectors to deliver a passing grade."
"While there is no way I can say with certainty that the pressure affected the outcome," he continued," It's" very difficult to imagine a situation where an inspection team would be willing to deliver the message if there was any possible way it could be avoided."
After passing the 2007 inspection, the 2nd BW continued its nuclear mission and performed critical duties at Minot as well, while the 5th Bomb Wing struggled to regain its certification. Personnel from the Louisiana base remained at Minot through the first half of 2008, until the 5th Wing was re-certified to perform its nuclear mission. Had Barksdale failed its evaluation in the fall of 2007, the re-qualification process would have been much longer and more complex, crippling the bomber leg of the nuclear triad for months, and limiting options for strategic planners.
Observers note that the Barksdale evaluation was the first "no-notice" inspection conducted in the wake of the Minot incident. The 2007 event ushered in an era of more rigorous nuclear standards and evaluations, as well as a reorganization of the USAF's nuclear enterprise. Almost two years later, Global Strike Command became operational and took charge of the Air Force's nuclear mission from its headquarters at Barksdale.
Creation of the new command was one of the recommendations from a task force (chaired by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who chaired a task force that investigated the Minot incident. The Schlesinger panel discovered that nuclear expertise in the Air Force had been badly eroded by a variety of factors, ranging from decreased emphasis on the mission, to the use of technicians in other capacities (such as guarding prisoners in Iraq).
Over the past two years, there have been fewer reported problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise, but there were clear growing pains. After the Minot incident, four more USAF wings failed their nuclear surety inspections in 2008 and 2009, leading (in some cases) to more personnel changes. The 5th Wing also failed its initial NSI in May 2008, though it regained its nuclear certification, and passed a make-up evaluation three months later.
The service was also embarrassed by the mis-shipment of nuclear components to Taiwan in early 2008, an event that led to more calls for greater accountability, and changes in Air Force nuclear operations. At least six USAF generals were disciplined over that matter, along with a larger number of lower-ranking officers. The sanctions were announced just weeks after the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley and the Air Force Secretary, Michael Wynne, were asked to resign because of continuing problems in the nuclear enterprise.
Air Force public affairs officials did not respond to e-mail requests for comment on the 2007 report.
No explanation was given as to why it took so long to release the report. Only two paragraphs in the report were redacted, included a brief section describing the "health" of Barksdale's nuclear stockpile at the time of the evaluation. The report was originally classified "For Official Use Only/DoD Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information." Release of the 2007 report was authorized by Major General Harold Mitchell, the Air Force's Deputy Inspector General.
Some of the personnel connected with the original Minot episode have remained in the service. Colonel Emig, the 5th Bomb Wing commander who was fired in the weeks after the incident, now runs the Irregular Warfare Division at Air Combat Command Headquarters, and has played a major role in shaping Air Force UAV operations. Colonel Westhauser, the former commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale, is now assigned at Maxwell AFB, AL, where he is Director of Doctrine Development at the Curtis LeMay Center.