Monday, October 22, 2007

Analyzing "The Plan"

To its credit, the Air Force certainly said the right things in last Friday's press conference, outlining the results of that six-week investigation into the accidental transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles between bases in North Dakota and Florida.

While emphasizing that the weapons were never outside military control--and that such incidents are exceedingly rare--Air Force officials noted that mistakes of that sort are simply intolerable, and outlined a program for preventing similar mishaps in the future. Elements of the plan include (a) the dismissal of seniors officers deemed culpable in the incident; (b) decertification of Minot's 5th Bomb Wing in critical, nuclear-related tasks; (c) the "punishment" of dozens of lower-ranking personnel involved in the mishap, many of whom were removed from the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which allows them to work with nuclear weapons; (d) "corrective actions to fix problems revealed by the inquiry--and return the 5th BMW to full operational status--and (e) a review of the recently completed-investigation, to determine if any criminal charges should be filed.

It certainly sounded like a comprehensive plan, particularly at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, when the Air Force press conference was held. The timing of that event was no accident; like other public (and private) institutions, the USAF learned a long time ago that "bad news" is best dispensed on a Friday afternoon or evening, when the media and and audience interest are at low ebb, in anticipation of the weekend. And, to no one's surprise, the media coverage produced by the press event focused on the firing of four senior officers at Minot and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, where the nuclear-armed B-52 landed. Other coverage highlighted the serious nature of the incident, deemed the worst breach of nuclear weapons security in more than 40 years.

But none of the articles--at least none that we've seen--spent much time on the underlying issues associated with the mishap. By all accounts, the inadvertent transfer of those nuclear-armed cruise missiles was a serious offense. Air Force officials described it as a serious violation of well-established regulations and protocols--a system that, in their words, has worked well for a long, long time. They also stressed the need for public confidence in our system for storing, protecting and transporting nuclear weapons. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the overall goal of the investigation is to "minimize" the chances for a similar mishap in the future.

That's all well and good, but (from what we've seen so far) there has been a focus on the "mechanics" of the Minot incident, and less regard for the institutional and cultural factors that may have influenced it. Firing three Colonels and a Lieutenant Colonel got everyone's attention, as did the flurry of LORs (Letters of Reprimand) handed out to lower-ranking personnel and the decision to remove 65 airmen--of all ranks--from the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), used to screen personnel who work with nuclear weapons. And, to drive home the "accountability" point, the service also decertified the 5th BMW on several nuclear-related tasks, leaving it unable to perform the full complement of combat missions. In light of the problems uncovered at Minot, such steps were inevitable, even welcome.

But they still don't answer the question of how that B-52 carrying six nuclear warheads flew from Minot to Barksdale, and no one knew the weapons were on board until they had been sitting on an aircraft ramp in Louisiana for almost 10 hours. The reasons for that failure go well beyond the failure of individual airmen or supervisors to conduct required checks. They suggest larger problems within the Air Force's nuclear weapons community--issues that must be addressed to prevent this sort of incident from happening in the future.

We'll begin with PRP, a topic that's been addressed frequently in this blog over the past two months. Various experts voiced concerns about how the program's been run since the mid-1990s; one retired Chief estimated that 25% of the personnel cleared for PRP shouldn't be in the program at all, due to personal or medical issues.

But, with commanders retaining the ability to "waiver" almost any sort of difficulty, more than a few "problem children" have wiggled through the system, improving manning levels, but creating additional headaches for commanders and other supervisors. We can only wonder what percentage of those 65 recently de-certified for PRP fell into that category, and what corrective measures (if any) are in place to keep them out of the program in the future. Beyond that, what steps does the Air Force propose to ensure that PRP standards are rigidly enforced?

The Minot incident also raises concerns about the Pentagon's evaluation program for nuclear-capable units. According to press reports, the 5th BMW earned high marks on a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) less than a year ago, and the wing's safety office received a command-level award for its work as well. Given the "lackadaisical attitudes" cited in the Air Force report, it seems rather odd that the NSI inspectors didn't detect that problem during their visit to Minot.

There's also the related issue of problems during those evaluations; Minot has failed an NSI within the last for years, and Barksdale achieved a minimum passing score during the same period. For both units, this lack of consistency--in an area that demands absolute, consistent adherence to standards--is disturbing, to say the least.

Indeed, there are indications that the seeds of the Minot incident were sown long before that failed inspection, or the recent, ill-fated B-52 flight to Barksdale. The Federal of American Scientists obtained a classified excerpt from the official history of Air Combat Command, the parent command of the 5th BMW. That history bemoaned declining standards for nuclear safety, security and accountability in 1998--nine years before the cruise missile debacle.

That was the same period when some of the Air Force's nuclear program managers began wondering about "shortcuts" in the PRP, with commanders "waivering" behavior that would (ordinarily) disqualify air and ground crews from working with nuclear weapons. It was also an era when some nuclear sites developed reputations as "hell holes," with troops volunteering for overseas, remote tours to escape them. A retired CMSgt who served at one of our nuclear bases in Europe recalls an influx of weapons specialists from Barksdale, who indicated that they would "do anything" to escape the Louisiana base.

Stories like that suggest long-term problems in some Air Force career fields (and installations) associated with nuclear weapons. And that represents the real "bottom line" for the current probe. Beyond fixing the obvious issues at Minot and Barksdale, the service must also address issues related to training, manning and personnel standards that are absolutely vital to any unit, particularly those that are nuclear-capable. Cutting corners on PRP or allowing young troops to deviate from checklists for weapons retirement have a way of coming back to bite you, as evidenced by the incident at Minot.

We have little doubt that the "fixes" outlined last Friday will remedy the problems discovered in North Dakota and Louisiana. But, based on what's been outlined so far, we're less convinced that the Air Force is taking a hard look at the long-term institutional issues that contributed to the mishap. Until those concerns are addressed, the service will still run the risk of another, serious incident involving "missing" nuclear weapons.


A. McCrory said...

Airmen wanted to escape Barksdale because it's in a miserable location. The problem is not with PRP. PRP has always been a Commander's program. They have the final determination about who can perform PRP duties. Many good people are not granted PRP because of a Commander's decision.

The problem is not Nuclear Surety Inspections either. An NSI is a snapshot in time. It cannot catch the one big error that comes along every 20 years or so.

The problem is in fact the culture. It's the culture that promotes unqualified people to Senior Non Commissioned Officer positions based upon how much off-duty involvement they have done and not how much work experience they have. The Chief at Minot was great at getting promoted but didn't know her own job. She dropped the ball and left her people untrained, unprepared, and unsupervised.

"You're only as good as the people you hire."
-Ray Kroc

There are some great technicians in the nuke weapons community. But when their supervisors don't teach them the proper way to work then everyone is screwed.

Unknown said...

A--I agree with many of your commens; true,an NSI (like any inspection) is a snapshot in time. But, if people aren't properly trained or they've become lax in the job, it becomes more difficult to "game" the system and paper over flaws. Not saying it can't be done--but it is much harder. Perhaps part of the problem is that AF inspections (in general) have become more a little too touchy-feely over the past decade or so. I've heard the service is getting back to compliance-oriented inspections, but if that was the case, you'd think that Minot would have earned a lower grade during recent evals.

As far as Barksdale is concerned, I've been to Bossier City a few times and it is far from a garden spot. But, I've also been hearing stories about poorly trained/unqualified people exiting the WSA at Barksdale for 10 years now. A retired Chief who served at Ghedi in the late 90s said that most of their problem children came from Barksdale; true, many left because of the location, but the folks at Ghedi found that many of the Barksdale products couldn't do the job, and shouldn't have been cleared for PRP in the first place.

And, lest we forget, PRP (and commander's discretion) cuts both ways. For every deserving person who's rejected for PRP, there are many more who are cleared, despite medical conditions, financial problems and other personal issues that (in years past) were automatic disqualifiers. As I pointed out in the post, one of the unaswered questions from the Minot/Barksdale incident is how many of those folks didn't belong on PRP in the first place.

Finally, if you're so inclined, I have a couple of questions for you, please drop me a line at

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Anonymous said...

As a former Airman in the same program during 86-90 at Ellsworth AFB, SD. I am appalled this happened at all but then not surprised at the same time. We would absolutely follow everything in the checklist marking off with a grease pen as we went along with our task. But we would also be forewarned of any NSI inspections weeks in advance. We would spend absurd amounts of time dusting rails in the rafters 30 ft up out of site and shoring up personnel records. That is part of the reason I left, the dog and pony shows never end particularly in that skill set when we were tested every 6 mo. and had to deal with inspections every 12-18 months just to maintain current qualifications. So this whole incident is very troubling indeed. Where was the NCO with the checklist and grease pencil where is said verify that no warhead is installed on step #1.

halojones-fan said...

I'm pretty sure that the bureaucracy had instituted staffing metrics for the PRP that officers were required to meet. So either you put below-average in PRP and hope that they don't screw up too badly, or you don't send enough people to PRP and get your ass chewed off because you didn't meet your metric. Both are problems, but only the latter is your problem.

It's probably the same deal with the inspections. The inspectors don't look for culture; they look for the stuff on their checklist. If it ain't on the checklist then it ain't gonna get inspected.

A. McCrory said...

spook86, sure some who shouldn't be qualified under PRP get through. But coworkers and supervisors as well as the docs at the hospital also have the responsibility to monitor personal reliability. I seriously doubt that the issue at Minot had much to do with PRP. PRP covers mental reliability not the capability to perform maintenance. The fact is that there are lots of misfits in the military and they can screw up your pay, ruin your food, and give you the wrong meds. We rely on supervisors to ensure the chaff gets weeded out or at least put somewhere where they can't hurt anyone.

Which is the crux of the matter. The Chief at Minot did not know her mid level supervisors. She didn't have the ability to get rid of the weak supervisors. As a matter of fact, she was more enamored with her position as Chief and wanted to help them get promoted rather than ensure they did their jobs.

Those mid level supervisors have a lot of responsibility. They have to double check all work. They have to pound into the airmen that they must follow AF regulations. They have to be tough. The Chief did not make sure her philosophy was communicated to the lowest level of the flight. Or perhaps she did but her philosophy was one of getting promoted and not one of doing the job right. She didn't get promoted by knowing her job so what example did she set?

The officers certainly bore ultimate responsibility. That is their job. But the enlisted are the subject matter experts. They work on the weapons day in and day out. The Senior enlisted have to know their people, weed out the incompetent and ineffective and make sure the work gets done. It's not fun but it is important. The Chief at Minot was coddled and mentored into her rank. She did the same to her NCOs.

Inded Barksdale has always had a poor reputation. It has been called Barkatraz for a long time. But it's my opinion that the reason for that is that the best maintenance troops go elsewhere because the area is not desirable. That leaves the worst of the lot and those who homestead because LA is their home. Once a base gets a bad rap it's hard to get good people to stay there.

Minot always had a good reputation. That doesn't mean some errors weren't made in the past. What happened at Minot was a failure of leadership and especially enlisted leadership.

Spook86, every nuke troop that ever lived has had some personal issue or some bad day. PRP was not the issue there. The Minot incident was the perfect storm of mistakes. I'll bet each one of those mistakes happened before...but not all at once.

I agree with the other poster that inspections have gotten touchy feely. But if a wing has to wait for an inspection to find their problems then they are are just asking for problems.