Friday, November 25, 2011

Lingering Problems?

It's no secret that the U.S. Air Force's nuclear enterprise went through a rough patch a few years back.

The dark days began with the inadvertent transfer of six, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. That mishap was followed, in relatively short order, by a series of failed inspections among the service's various nuclear-capable units and the mistaken shipment of nuclear components from an Air Force depot in Utah to Taiwan. Ultimately, the blunders led to the dismissal of the USAF Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force, followed by a prolonged rebuilding process.

By most accounts, Air Force nuclear operations are now back on track. There have been no more unauthorized shipments or transfers, and units are adapting to a new, no-notice nuclear inspection program. Additionally, the service stood up a new organization, Global Strike Command, to supervise nuclear operations, and Air Force leaders began devoting more resources to the mission, after decades of neglect.

Still, the enterprise is far from trouble-free. According to Tacoma News-Tribune, the service's prime nuclear airlift unit, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, recently failed its nuclear surety inspection.

In military parlance, the mission is called Prime Nuclear Airlift Force, or PNAF.

The 62nd Airlift Wing has a motto for that mission: "PNAF... Perfect... Always!"

Not anymore.

For the first time, the wing received an overall rating of "unsatisfactory" after a weeklong inspection that concluded Monday.

The rating stems from an isolated incident involving an individual assigned to the mission, said an Air Mobility Command official with knowledge of the inspection's findings. The official declined to provide further details.

Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, an AMC spokesman, said neither nuclear weapons nor related components were used during the inspection and the public was not at risk.

"There was never any danger," he said. "The Air Force policy is we don't get into specifics on the inspections."

Roberts said the wing, which has performed the mission since 1997, can continue to do so even with the "unsatisfactory" rating.

The 62nd will undergo a mandatory re-inspection in 90 days. It was not surprising that AMC allowed the McChord wing to continue the nuclear mission, despite the failing grade. With the 62nd the only airlift wing performing those duties, suspension of the wing's certification would wreak havoc in the Air Force's nuclear enterprise.

According to the News-Tribune, the public affairs office at Lewis-McChord claimed the 62nd passed its previous NSI, but didn't specify when the evaluation occurred. Under current Air Force policy, units involved in the nuclear mission are inspected at least once every 18 months. More frequent inspections are not unheard of, under the new, "no-notice" policy.

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