Friday, October 19, 2007

The Hammer Falls

***UPDATE//2:54 EDT***

CNN is reporting that four officers--not five--have been relieved in connection with the incident, identifying them as the 5th Bomb Wing Commander (Minot), as well as the Commander of the 5th Maintenance Group and the 5th Munitions Maintenance Squadron, also based at Minot. The other officer reportedly dismissed from his post is the Commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale. The CNN report makes no mention of Minot's 5th Operations Group Commander, who was identified as one of the fired officers by sources we spoke with at ACC Headquarters.

If CNN's information proves accurate, the firing of the 2nd Operations Group Commander will potentially raise some eyebrows. The B-52 and crew involved in the accidental transfer were reportedly assigned to Minot, putting them under the charge of the 5th Operations Group. However, if the Barksdale ops group commander had control of the missile transfer and retirement process, that would provide potential grounds for dismissal.

On the other hand--as CNN notes--the Minot bomber crew had the final responsibility for checking the aircraft (and its missile payload) before departure. CNN reports that the Air Force investigation found at least five failures to verify and inspect the missiles, including a check by the B-52's radar navigator (bombardier) before the aircraft left Minot.


The Air Force will hold a press conference at 3 p.m. today, to discuss its investigation into the recent, accidental transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana. While the service has not revealed the results of that inquiry, its consequences are already being felt, with the reported dismissal of two senior officers involved in the incident.

Sources at Air Combat Command Headquarters tell In From the Cold that the Commander of the 5th Bombardment Wing (BMW) at Minot AFB, North Dakota, Colonel Bruce Emig, has been removed from his post, along with the commander of the 5th Operations Group, Colonel Parker Northrup III. Word of their dismissal began circulating at Minot and ACC Headquarters this morning. ACC, located at Langley AFB in Hampton, Virginia is the parent command for CONUS-based Air Force fighter and bomber units, including the 5th BMW.

A spokesman for the base public affairs office at Minot refused comment on the report, referring this blog to the ACC public affairs office. An ACC public affairs officer said he had no information on the reported firings, and expressed surprise at the Minot statement. The ACC spokesman indicated that details on the incident investigation--including disciplinary actions--would be provided at the news conference later today.

The apparent dismissal of Colonel Emig and Colonel Northrup came only one day after the Washington Post and other media outlets reported that a number of Air Force officers could be fired because of the mishap, considered the most serious breach of U.S. nuclear safety and accountability procedures in more than forty years.

Sources cited by the Post also suggested that criminal charges might be filed in connection with the incident, although they did not specify who might be targeted for possible legal action. The paper also reported that seven lower-ranking airmen had received Letters of Reprimand (LORs) in connection with the transfer. LORs are considered non-judicial punishment and are typically imposed for less-serious offenses.

The reported firings at Minot were not considered a surprise, given the circumstances surrounding the incident. It was a B-52 assigned to Minot's only B-52 squadron--part of the 5th Operations Group--that dispatched the bomber to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on 29 August, unaware that six missiles carried on the aircraft still had nuclear warheads. The missiles were being flown to Barksdale for de-commissioning.

While military and nuclear safety regulations dictated that the weapons be disarmed before transfer, the nuclear-tipped advanced cruise missiles were removed from their storage bunker, loaded onto the B-52 and flown to Barksdale, remaining on the aircraft parking ramp for another 10 hours before the warheads were discovered.

Air Force officials have emphasized that there was no chance of a detonation during the incident, although radioactive materials could have spilled if the aircraft had crashed. According to the Post, the warheads were accounted for during a 36-hour period that began with their removal from the storage bunker in Minot, and lasted until they were discovered at Barksdale.

Both Colonel Emig and Colonel Northrup are veteran B-52 pilots who served previous tours at Minot. Emig was chief of group plans and programs for the 5th BMW from 1999-2000, and he returned to Minot in June of this year as the wing commander. Northrup spent five years as a B-52 pilot and flight examiner at the North Dakota base (1990-1995). He took command of the 5th Operations Group in 2005, after tours at bases in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Korea.

Emig and Northrup were the second and third officers at Minot to lose their jobs over the transfer incident. The commander of the installation's Munitions Maintenance Squadron (MMS) was relieved from that post shortly after the mishap was disclosed in early September.

According to yesterday's Washington Post article, as many as five Air Force officers could be relieved of command in connection with the mishap. An Air Force official--speaking with the paper on the condition on anonymity--said that officers would be dismissed at both Minot and Barksdale. So far, there has been no word from the Louisiana base on dismissals related to the nuclear incident. Minot and Barksdale are home to the only remaining B-52 units in the U.S. Air Force. The massive, Cold War-era bombers are capable of carrying a variety of munitions, including nuclear bombs and missiles.


Frank's World said...

In the article it indicates the Squadron or Wing COmmander is being relieved. Why would the Wing COmmander be punished for something a subordinate did ?

Obviously, they must have plans and procedures in place for the movement of munitions such as this. Do they require the Munitions Squadron CO to be present and personally inspect each item; or do they have an assigned SHift Officer whose job that is ?

Does the Wing Commander & Ops. Commander have to be present or sign-off on materiel during such evolutions ? If so; if they were in the direct immediate chain; well then, fine. They need to be beaten.

But if some mope of a crew member fails to do his job; and the SHift Sergeant fails to check on his crew; and maybe the Shift Lieutenant (or Captain, or what ever rank) fails to do HIS job and check his Sergeant; well, they need to be beaten.

How about the air crew ? The Pilot / Commander has to check his ordnance load ?

I confess, I don't know much about how the USAF does such things; but punishing the Wing Commander for errors by subordinates just doesn't seem right. Now, if they can demonstrate lax adherence to policies, or somthing; where the W.C. would (or should) have known, then OK.

I'm just curious and would like to know more.

A. McCrory said...

The problem is with leadership. They need to get out from behind their desks and see what is going on. What's missing from this article is mention of the SNCOs who are in charge of the airmen who were supposed to download the warheads.

There's nuclear weapons Chief at Minot and she should have been checking and double checking her airmen instead of going to symposiums and tributes to women in the military. There are Senior Master Sergeants who should have been making sure rules were followed. They should have ensured they protected their airmen by making sure they were properly trained and making sure they followed all the Nuclear Weapon System Safety Rules. They should all be fired and forced to retire.

The pilots are in charge of everything that goes on with their aircraft. They probably should have made a visual weapons verification check themselves. There is a port in the warhead bay door where personnel can verify the presences of a weapon.

Nuclear weapons are of such importance that it's imperative that the wing commander be held accountable. The Wing CC and Ops commander don't have to be present. If it were a real weapons shipment the Munitions Accountable Supply Officer would act on the behalf of the Squadron CC and all above.

But remember, everyone thought this was a shipment of missiles with dummy warheads. They would not have had any of the checks and balances in place because they would have thought they weren't necessary. It would just have been another shipment of equipment.

Storms24 said...

What we haven't learned from main stream media is how the mistake was discovered - I can only imagine the "pucker factor" when the loader or crew chief (probably an E-5 enlisted troop) made his routine check and found the real thing staring back at him. One other thing I'd like to know: Were all of the "helping hand" protocols followed afterwards or was there an attempt to only meet bare minimum notifications to minimize the embarassing fallout?

Unknown said...

It does not matter if they thought they were "dummy" warheads or not...You *always* check the payload bay before you do anything to the weapon package. Also, It is quite easy to tell an ACM load trainer from a real missile.

Frank....Yes, the pilots should check what they have loaded. They were probably didn't pay attention because of the lack of security around they aircraft. No matter, even if they thought there were no nukes in the payload bay, they still should have checked for tactical ferry payloads...this is something they need to know. One glance in the payload bay would have alerted them to the problem.

When procedure is not followed in the manner it was supposedly not followed in this instance, the commander is most certainly to blame. Commanders must always emphasize strict adherence to tech. data and this should go down the chain.

There is no "shift sergeant". There is a shift supervisor. It sounds like this package was moved by weapons handlers and *not* munitions maintenance (both can tow packages out to the flight line). Either way, what happens is that a work order is simply cut and the crew goes and grabs the package. You have another crew opening the storage structure. The opening of the structure, towing, and badge exchange for the tow crew as they leave the Weapon Storage Area (WSA) all have to go through Munitions Control.

Somehow, this package was not shown to have warheads in the maintenance system *and* at munitions control who usually keeps an "battle board" of every weapon, trailer, trainer, etc., on site.

Unknown said...

Yes, when handling and especially loading nuclear weapons, the Base CO has to be present and carries full responsibility. No subordinate may take over. These nukes are, after all, not Mk. 84s or JDAMs!

Unknown said...

Although leadership should be held accountable as they are ultimately responsible for personnel under their command. However in Col Emig's defense he was only in command for 2 months. I'm pretty sure during that time he was reviewing current procedures and operations for the groups/squadrons under his command. I would like to know where the previous Wing CC is. I believe he is ultimately responsible for the disregard of the Air Force's core values (Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All we Do) the Air Force instills in their force.

Unknown said...

Any publicly released material on incidents like this is going to make me suspiscious. NUKE is based on game theory. When the government says something about a nuke mishap on American soil, I am very interested in the way they say what they say.

This is just a speculative example to illustrate what I mean. What if this was being taken advantage of to give Iran a look at specs on tactical cruise missile nukes that they believe the IAF possesses.
Lord only knows what the real message is but I believe there's a message being sent.

SwampWoman said...

While I've never been in the Air Force, it seems to me that relieving people of command and effectively ruining their careers is a pretty extreme way to "send a message".

Unknown said...

I agree Swampwoman, what I mean to say is that the publicly released information such as...
"six W80-1 nuclear-armed AGM-129 advanced cruise missiles were flown from Minot Air Force Base, ND, to Barksdale Air Force Base "

Should NOT be that specific.

"six nuclear armed cruise missiles were flown from Minot Air Force Base, ND, to Barksdale Air Force Base "
would be sufficient.

SwampWoman said...

Ah, sorry, my misunderstanding, Frank.

Doug Evans said...

Having been there, having done that, having been a weapons loader on that exact same ramp for years I'm embarrassed that standards have sunk so low on Minot AFB that a breakout and delivery crew, load crew, weapons supervisor, and air crew all failed to perform the most meager of weapons custody and weapons safety checks pre and post load.

Where was the MASO? Or did ACC do away with Munitions Accountable Supply Officers also? What happened to the Maintenance Officer for the Munitions Squadron? He/She is the one who delegates their authority of weapons custody to the maintenance teams.

What happened to the rule of thumb "treat it like it's live - always"? That one little rule has saved more lives and more careers than anything else. Now it looks like it's been replaced with "Just git 'er done."

Something of this magnitude would never have happened under the Strategic Air Command and I'm sure I'm just a member of a chorus who are loudly singing "Told you this would happen" and hating every moment of it.