Kook theories aside (see next post), last week's accidental transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana does raise serious questions about how such a mistake could happen, and the safeguards associated with America's nuclear stockpile.
So far, the snafu at Minot AFB has cost at least one officer his job. An Air Force spokesman said late Wednesday that the installation's munitions squadron commander has been fired. Earlier reports suggested that the commander of Minot's B-52 squadron had been dismissed. An investigation into the matter is continuing, and military analysts believe that more unit commanders will be fired because of the incident.
If it's any consolation, the Air Force has the right man leading the Minot probe. Air Combat Command (which is ultimately responsible for the bombers and weapons at the North Dakota base) has appointed its Director of Air and Space Operations, Major General Douglas Raaberg, to conduct the inquiry. In a service--and command--dominated by fighter jocks, General Raaberg, a career bomber pilot, is something of a rarity. But his years of experience with heavy bombers and nuclear weapons will be critical in determining what went wrong at Minot's 5th Bomb Wing --and how to fix it.
But the seeds of last week's mistake may have been sown years before load crews attached those advanced cruise missiles to the B-52 and it departed for Barksdale. In response to our original post, we've heard from several military munitions experts, active duty and retired. They paint a picture of a career field that, like many in the military, is stressed by constant deployments (and in some cases) declining experience levels. That doesn't excuse what happened at Minot, but it does suggest problems that go beyond mere paperwork errors.
Some of the most insightful comments on last week's accident came from a good friend of ours, a retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant who spend almost a decade on the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which covers personnel associated with nuclear weapons. One of the Chief's many military assignments was as a combination First Sergeant/Senior Enlisted Advisor at a small Air Force munitions base outside the CONUS. We won't divulge the name of our friend, but he's a legendary leader and straight shooter. What he saw at that overseas post in the late 1990s convinced him that a major weapons screw-up--like the one at Minot--was not a matter of "if," but "when."
According to the Chief, there are a variety of factors that led to last week's mistake. He's identified at least five major issues that may have contributed to the "errant" transfer:
1) The Demise of Strategic Air Command. With the end of the Cold War, the Air Force dissolved SAC in the early 1990s, transferring its bombers to ACC, its ICBMs to Air Force Space Command, and its nuclear planning/warfighting mission to U.S. Strategic Command. As the Chief reminds us, the demise of SAC ended the "stove-piping" that produced two generations of pilots, maintainers and munitions specialists who devoted their careers to the command and its nuclear mission. As a result, experience levels began to decline. Additionally, the Air Force scrapped much of the "supplemental" guidance that SAC provided for virtually every job and operational mission. While regulations governing nukes remained detailed, an incident like the one at Minot was unheard of in SAC, where everyone associated with nukes was trained--and held--to uncompromising standards.
2) Declining Standards for Individuals on PRP. As we've noted in previous posts, all service members involved in the nuclear mission fall under the Air Force's Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which is supposed to weed out individuals with medical, character or mental flaws that might affect their performance. Yet, the Chief tells us that some commanders were cutting corners on PRP a decade ago, allowing individuals with clear problems to work the nuclear mission. As the Chief notes, unit commanders have the power and authority to certify anyone, and he watched them approve diabetics (an automatic disqualifier in years past), personnel facing medical boards for other serious conditions, troops with a history of financial irresponsibility (including bankruptcies) and some suspected of drug use. When the Chief asked the major command and the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) to enforce mandated standards, he was (essentially) told to "shut up and color."
3) The Medical Corps Takes a Pass. In many cases where medical conditions should have prevented PRP certification, the Chief tells us, Air Force medical officers refused to take a stand. "They complained a lot because it put the monkey on their backs to do their duty," he remembers. "I had medical folks tell me: 'Chief, your standards are too high.'...The mental health folks were the worst. I can count on one finger the number that did their duty. It was both the officers and the NCOs.
4) Poor Leadership. Like other senior NCOs, the Chief bemoans declining standards--and experience--in the officer corps. "I had 'commanders' who had never supervised an enlisted troop in their entire career. We had commanders that went from the cockpit to command, [or]from a program office to command--with no experience leading, and that's as wrong as two boys in a bed." We've heard similar comments before, and the Chief's observations about the need for proven leadership in a munitions squadron (or other organizations supporting the nuclear mission) are telling. A munitions maintenance unit is, typically, 90% enlisted, and many of those personnel are first and second-term airmen.
5) Lack of Accountability. The Chief told us about one airman who arrived at the munitions base and almost immediately ran into severe financial problems--all self-inflicted. He bounced hundreds of dollars in checks, ran up unpaid debts on a government credit card and quickly proved himself unworthy of PRP certification. Our friend got rid of the problem child, but in doing some legwork, he discovered that the dirtball had similar problems at his previous assignment. But rather than addressing the issue--and getting rid of the miscreant--the airman's old unit allowed him to move, pushing their problem off on someone else. Other supervisors and first sergeants have voiced similar complaints about commanders (and the larger system) that are reluctant to make tough calls, or seem willing to tolerate unacceptable behavior. "It's the new Amerika of convicts, criminals, Clintons and corruption" the Chief says.
Clearly, these problems go well beyond individual squadrons, or a single bomb wing in North Dakota. But it will be revealing to learn what role (if any) these issues played in last week's Minot incident, and how serious the Air Force is about addressing them.
Amazingly, the 5th Bomb Wing Safety Office at Minot received a Nuclear Surety Category One for "outstanding safety and performance in mishap prevention during fiscal year '06." Should we can take comfort in the fact that the unplanned transfer was conducted in a safe manner?