Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Week's Best News...

Top Al-Qaeda Commander Killed in Pakistan

And the the Worst....

City Council Passes Motions Criticizing Marines Office.

Only in Berkeley. Incidentally, one of the city councilmen who voted for the resolution--and was quoted in other accounts--spoke with pride of being "booted from the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

We'd say Abu Laith al-Libi picked the wrong hiding spot. He'd probably get a key to the city in Berkeley.

And, if that's not bad enough, the Department of Transportation has excused Oakland International Airport's horrendous treatment of troops returning from Iraq last year. During a refueling stop in Oakland (enroute to Hawaii), 200 Marines and soldiers were denied access to the terminal. As the Washington Times reports:

Calvin L. Scovell III, the department's inspector general, blamed the mix-up on security concerns and a communication failure between the Defense Department and the Homeland Security Department.

The contract to allow military layovers at the California airport "did not require that military personnel have access to the airport terminal; it only required that military personnel be allowed to deplane and stretch their legs on stops lasting over one hour," said a report released yesterday to House lawmakers who requested an investigation into the matter.

The Sept. 27 layover was the last stop for fuel and food, but the troops, who were returning from a tour in Iraq, were denied access to food and bathroom facilities.

At last report, DoD still has a contract with the Oakland Airport.

Where’s the Comparison?

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a lengthy, multi-page article that detailed a string of murders committed by military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Predictably, the Times pulled out all the stops, interviewing victims’ families, law enforcement officials and veterans accused of the crimes. The implication of their “reporting” was clear: the stress of combat in the Middle East has transformed large numbers of military personnel into crazed murderers.

But the Times (conveniently) ignored a rather important comparison. They failed to compare their data with murder rates for the general population, and for the demographic group that includes most returning service members. When that comparison is made, the impact of the NYT article fades; despite the stresses of frequent deployments and combat, the murder rate for returning vets is well below the average for their civilian peers. So much for that “veterans killing spree.”

Not to be outdone, the Washington Post weighs in today, with a lengthy piece on increased suicide rates among members of the U.S. Army. Citing Army statistics, the WaPo reports that the number of solider suicides almost doubled over a four-year period, as more troops entered combat in the Middle East. According to the accompanying graphic, there were 70 suicides among soldiers in 2002; four years later, the number reached 121—if you include 32 deaths that are “pending confirmation” as suicides.

To “personalize” the problem, Post staff writer Dana Priest profiles Lt Elizabeth Whiteside, an Army reservist who has been a psychiatric outpatient at Walter Reed Medical Center since early 2007, after suffering a mental breakdown in Iraq. During that episode, the pointed a gun at a superior, fired two shots into a ceiling, then turned the weapon on herself.

Earlier this week, Lieutenant Whiteside again tried to end her life, taking an overdose of pills. Friends and family members said she was worried about a potential court-martial on charges of threatening a fellow soldier, stemming from the incident in Iraq. After her latest suicide attempt, Whiteside learned that the charges against her had been dropped.

Priest’s reporting notes that the Army was unprepared for the recent surge of suicides and self-injuries. But, like his rivals at the Times, she never puts the numbers in any sort of meaningful statistical context, despite the fact that such data is readily available.

Consider the Army’s reported suicide rate; at 17.5 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, it seems staggering. But how does it compare to the general population? Readers of the Post won’t know the answer to that question, unless they do a little digging.

The numbers are relatively easy to come by, and they are revealing. Even a cursory look at the figures underscores what mental health professionals have long known: the risk of suicide is far higher among certain demographic groups, most notably middle-aged white men and the elderly. A graphic from the National Institute of Mental Health summarizes data from the year 2000:

As indicated by the chart, suicide rates are highest among white males, the largest segment of the U.S. Army. And, even at the current “elevated” rate, suicide totals for soldiers are comparable to their civilian peers, and in some cases, notably lower. The Post doesn’t provide a demographic breakout of soldiers who attempted suicide, but anecdotal evidence suggests that most are white and relative newcomers to the Army, with many serving their first enlistment.

If that “profile” is accurate, then suicide rates for young soldiers are in line with the general population, and totals for older troops (between ages 30-45) are probably well below the national average. And that’s despite the rigors of constant deployments, which have sent many troops on multiple combat tours since 2003. We should also note that there has been a decline in suicide rates for many demographic groups since the late 1990s, but the reported Army rates are still in line with comparable segments of the civilian population.

The Post also fails to explore another interesting comparison that’s evident in the Army chart. While the suicide rate for soldiers has increased dramatically in recent years, suicide and self-injury totals for the Marine Corps have climbed only slightly. And no one can argue that Marine units haven’t seen their share of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why has the Corps been more effective in dealing with the problem? Better discipline? Better mental heath resources for Marines? The Post never explains.

The reasoning behind those oversights is clear enough. As with the NYT piece on “veterans who kill,” the WaPo article on Army suicides loses its edge when you place the numbers in their appropriate context. Reporting that Army suicide rates are often comparable to civilian averages—and in some cases, well below them—doesn’t make a very good front-page story.

Clearly, recent suicides and self-injuries among soldiers are a cause for concern—and there’s clearly a need for more resources to help troops that might harm themselves. But, in reporting the problem, the Post also needs to provide valid, statistical comparisons and avoid sensationalizing the issue. What a novel concept.


ADDENDUM: Here’s another bit of information that Mr. Priest ignored. The Army’s reported suicide rate for 2006 (17.5 per 100,000 soldiers) is far below the averages for many European nations, including those with strict gun-control laws. A complete list, compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO) can be found here.

Gateway Pundit pokes another pin in Ms. Priest's "expose." Using other, readily available data, Gateway found that more military personnel committed suicide when Bill Clinton was in office than during the Bush presidency--another fact somehow omitted from the WaPo account.

And Ms. Priest is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Give me a break.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What Happened at Minot--an In From the Cold Special Report

Part III: Moving Beyond the Mishap--The Nuclear Road Ahead

By Nate Hale

Sometime later this year, members of the 5th Bomb Wing with gather at Minot AFB, probably in the base theater, or a large maintenance hanger. As they settle into their seats, the lights will dim and a multi-media show will begin, showing unit personnel during their latest evaluation. Amid the music and images, there will be cheers, applause and even a few laughs as familiar faces flash on the screen.

But there will also be a hint of anxiety in the air. The slide show and music will mark the start of the wing’s last inspection out-brief. As the media show ends, the team’s ranking officer will take the stage and deliver his verdict, determining if the wing has passed the final evaluation, and regained its certification for nuclear operations.

If the out-brief follows the normal pattern, the senior inspector will waste little time in announcing the news that everyone has been waiting for: the 5th BMW has passed its last evaluation, regaining the certification lost in a highly-publicized, 2007 nuclear mishap.

That assertion will bring more cheers, and the realization that unit’s recent nightmare has come to an end. With its mission (and reputation) restored, the 5th Wing can look forward to the next round of combat rotations and other, routine operational challenges. Memories of the nuclear incident—and the months spent fixing problems that caused the mishap—will begin to fade.

Still, questions will linger about what happened last August. They won’t necessarily focus on the mechanics of the incident, which led to the unauthorized transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, on board a B-52 bomber.

Indeed, there has already been extensive analysis of leadership, procedural, communication and training issues that led to the incident. The Air Force has commissioned no less than three separate probes of the matter; one report has already been completed and the others will be finished in the coming weeks, long before the final inspection team travels to Minot.

Instead, those enduring concerns will be summarized in two basic questions: are the remedies in place sufficient to prevent similar incidents in the future, or is another major mishap simply a matter of time?

Answering those questions will prove more difficult than figuring out where managers failed, or scheduling and weapons accountability procedures broke down. But beyond that, the Air Force—and the nation—must deal with the issues of what role nuclear weapons play in our national security, who is allowed to work with those systems, and how the most destructive implements of war are stored, handled, maintained and protected.

The Minot incident has, understandably, raised new fears about the potential vulnerability of nuclear weapons to accidental loss or theft. The nuclear warheads on those Advanced Cruise Missiles flew across portions of seven states and were technically “missing” for 36 hours, until a maintenance technician at Barksdale made the discovery.

Proponents of reducing our nuclear stockpile have seized on the incident to support their cause. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month, a number of former Secretaries of State, Defense Secretaries and National Security advisers cited the mishap as another reason to move toward eliminating nuclear weapons around the globe. If the U.S. Air Force can lose six of its nukes, the thinking goes, we can only wonder about nuclear security in places like Pakistan.

But such comparisons are both specious and invalid. In reality, the six nuclear missiles never left the Air Force chain of custody. There was never any danger of them falling into the wrong hands; the greatest danger was the potential release of radioactive material into the environment had the bomber crashed. And despite its advanced age, B-52 accidents are exceptionally rare.

It’s also worth noting that the USAF—and the rest of the U.S. military—have compiled an impressive nuclear safety record. Before Minot, the military’s last serious mishap involving a nuclear weapon occurred twenty-seven years earlier, in a Titan II ICBM silo near Damascus Arkansas.

Like the Minot incident, the 1980 accident was the result of human error. A wrench socket fell down the silo and punctured the missile’s fuel tank because a technician failed to tether tools to his body, as required by Air Force regulations. A subsequent explosion demolished the missile and its silo, tossing the Titan II’s 10-megaton warhead hundreds of yards.

Still, the infrequency of nuclear accidents does not mitigate the gravity of what happened in North Dakota last summer. As a retired nuclear expert observed, “short of actually detonating a weapon, losing control of nuclear warheads is about as bad as it gets.” Experts interviewed by In From the Cold agreed that such an incident was previously considered “unthinkable,” due to the strict accountability and control procedures already in place.

But those measures broke down on a later summer day, when maintenance personnel and aircrews were in the middle of a routine “ferry” operation, designed to move Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot to Barksdale, for decommissioning. Five such missions had already been completed. With their nuclear warheads removed, a pair of six-missile “pylons” would be mounted on the wing stations of a Barksdale B-52, for a three-hour flight to Louisiana.

Warheads on one of the pylons were removed, but as technicians at Barksdale subsequently discovered, the second set of missiles was still armed. The preliminary Air Force investigation revealed a serious “deterioration” in weapons-handling procedures at Minot, and resulted in the firing of four senior officers, including the 5th BMW Commander, Colonel Bruce Eming.

Leadership changes and disciplinary actions were not limited to unit commanders. Five senior non-commissioned officers in the 5th Bomb Wing’s special weapons flight also lost their jobs, and four were demoted as well. Scores of lower-ranking personnel received lesser forms of non-judicial punishment, and 65 Air Force members, most of them at Minot, lost their certification to work with nuclear weapons.

As a result of the Minot accident, the service announced new rules for handling and accounting for nuclear weapons, which went into effect earlier this month. Under the revised directive, “nuclear and non-nuclear munitions/missiles” will not be stored in the same “storage structure, cell, or [underground storage site].” Prior to the change, both types of munitions could be stored in the same facility.

Additionally, new procedures also call for all non-nuclear missiles to have “stanchions/cones, ropes and placards” on them to clearly indicate the missile is not armed with a nuclear warhead. A placard will have the missile’s warhead status marked with labels like “trainer” or “empty.” Previously, airmen relied on a numeric code to determine the weapons warhead status.

According to Air Force Times, the new guidance also limits airmen handling or maintaining nuclear weapons to a 12-hour shift, under most circumstances. While an extended shift can be ordered by commanders to “advance defense readiness conditions, actual emergencies ... or to resolve an unexpected event,” it cannot exceed 16 continuous hours.

But veterans of the nuclear weapons field wonder if the new guidance—and multiple investigations—will be enough to prevent future mishaps. A retired senior NCO, who served as a weapons inspector for a major command inspector general (IG) team observed that additional custody documents and signatures, mandated in the wake of the Minot incident, would have been “more forms for those airmen to ignore.”

The former inspector, along with other experts, believe that the mishap was due (in part) to “cowboy maintenance”—the tendency of some load crews and weapons specialists to cut corners on the job, and poor leadership by senior NCOs in the bomb wing’s munitions maintenance squadron. That assessment has been affirmed by the wave of firings and reassignments at Minot.

While such changes were inevitable (and probably necessary) they underscore a critical point: effective leadership can’t be implemented through revised regulations and directives. The root causes of the Minot accident--poor management, ineffective communications and failed accountability—are a reflection on the leadership team that was in place last August. Subsequent struggles by the wing to regain its nuclear certification (including a “Not Ready” rating on an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection last month) highlight the difficulty in filling that leadership void.

Beyond the issue of finding skilled officers and non-commissioned officers to lead Minot’s munitions complex, there is the larger question of how the Air Force (and DoD) will manage the nuclear weapons career field. With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s--and demise of Strategic Air Command—the nation’s nuclear arsenal was reduced, and there was less emphasis on maintaining the personnel and resources needed to support those weapons systems.

More than fifteen years later, nuclear technicians had become, in the words of a retired senior NCO a “drag on resources” because (typically) they didn’t deploy in support of the Global War on Terror. And, when nuclear techs did serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, their assignments were often unrelated to their career field, working as interrogators or guarding POWs.

Sometimes, their stateside assignments aren’t much better. One veteran of a northern-tier bomber base notes that many young nuclear technicians cross-train into a new job or separate from service, rather than accept an assignment at a “cold weather” base, or an overseas locations. Retirement-eligible personnel often exit as well, finding civilian life preferable to moving their families to Minot, Grand Forks, or F.E. Warren.

Similar trends can be found among officers in the nuclear career field. One DoD consultant reports that many officers view nuclear assignments as a “pain” and a potential career-ender, if major mistakes happen on their watch. He says that many munitions officers take nuclear positions as a “square filler” and move on to better assignments at the first opportunity. As a result, experience levels among officers and senior enlisted personnel have gradually declined.

Such revelations are hardly new. In 2001, a study by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) expressed concern about the “viability” of nuclear expertise in the coming years. According to the analysis, there was “a general theme [among DoD and Air Force agencies] that officers with specialized nuclear expertise were getting harder to find.” The majority of those interviewed worried that the problem would become critical in 5-7 years.

While the DTRA study was concerned with finding nuclear experts for command staffs and arms control efforts, the same experience problems clearly apply to unit-level organizations, like the one at Minot. The Chief Master Sergeant who ran the 5th Bomb Wing’s special weapons branch served in staff assignments for seven years before arriving at the base. Minot’s maintenance group commander spent most of her career in supply and moved into her first maintenance post as a Lieutenant Colonel. With both were considered highly capable, neither had recent experience in running a nuclear weapons organization.

Along with the experience issue, there is the broader question of who should be allowed to work with the nation’s nuclear weapons. In the aftermath of the Minot incident, there were immediate questions about the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) which is used to screen personnel for nuclear duty. Individuals with medical conditions, emotional issues, financial problems or other concerns are normally disqualified for nuclear work.

But the final decision on an individual’s PRP status rests with the unit commander, and some veterans of the nuclear career field believe that commanders ignore potentially disqualifying issues, to avoid personnel and production problems.

A retired Chief Master Sergeant, who served as a First Sergeant and Senior Enlisted Advisor a nuclear unit, estimates that up to 25% of the airmen now on PRP should not be cleared for nuclear duty. While PRP was not a factor in the Minot incident, some experts believe the program should be revitalized, with an emphasis on standards enforcement and weeding out troubled airmen who might cause future problems—or mishaps.

Others advocate tougher inspection standards, claiming that cronyism has affected the evaluation process. One former inspector noted a reluctance (in some cases) to fail a unit, because “the guy you fail today may be your boss next year.”

However, there are indications that the inspection process works. Despite an ambitious plan to recertify the 5th BMW by early 2008, the Air Combat Command IG team rated the unit as “not ready” on its INSI, apparently due to training issues. According to the Federal of American Scientists, the same team—which inspects many of the Air Force’s nuclear-capable aircraft units--handed out a string of similar grades during the 1990s.

While such reports tend to affirm the effectiveness of the inspection process, they raise concerns about long-term trends within the nuclear weapons community. Some of the experts interviewed by In From the Cold believe that the most demanding of professions was on a slippery slope, due to a gradual erosion of expertise, experience and training.

Will the current round of investigations, punishment and revised regulations reverse that trend? Most of our experts believe those measures are a step in the right direction, but some worried about the underlying causes, including experience and training issues that have received less attention. Others expressed concern about accountability in the Minot mishap, noting that no one involved is facing a court-martial.

And that leads the inevitable question: could it happen again? Most of the nuclear experts we talked to believe the answer is “yes,” although the odds of a similar mishap are probably low. “As long as you’ve got human beings involved,” said the former weapons inspector, “there are going to be mistakes.” It’s a worry that will persist long after the 5th Bomb Wing has regained its nuclear certification.

What Happened in Jacksonville?

While John McCain claimed victory in yesterday's Florida GOP primary, results also showed a surprising defeat in a military town he once called home.

Statewide, the Arizona Senator cruised to an easy victory over his nearest rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Mr. McCain captured 36% of the vote in yesterday's primary, compared to 31% for Mitt Romney. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani, who staked his entire campaign on the Florida outcome, finished a distant third, just ahead of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Guliani is expected to drop out of the race today and endorse McCain.

But in the Jacksonville, the nation's third-largest Navy town--and a city where McCain once led a naval air group--Romney returned the favor, racking up double-digit margins in three counties with a large military population.

In Duval County--which includes the city of Jacksonville--Mr. Romney won by 15 points. He put up similar margins in nearby St. John and Clay counties. McCain's best showing in the region came in Nassau County, north of Jacksonville, but he still lost to Governor Romney by six points.

It was, perhaps, the only blight on a big night for Senator McCain. With his victory in Florida, McCain is in a commanding position to capture the GOP presidential nomination, while his opponents saw their prospects dashed, if not eliminated.

Exit polling from Florida indicates that Mr. McCain scored well among Republican moderates, liberals, Latinos and elderly voters. However, he trailed Mitt Romney among voters who identified themselves as conservatives, and younger voters, suggesting a potentially tight primary battle.

That's one reason the "veteran vote" was considered crucial in Florida. There are at least 300,000 military personnel, dependents and retirees who reside in Florida. Thousands of military personnel outside the state also claim Florida as their home, voting in elections by absentee ballot. In a close contest, the military voting bloc might prove decisive.

But, as in other recent primaries, the military vote broke solidly for Senator McCain. According to Associated Press exit polling, more than one in four GOP voters in Florida (27%) identified themselves as veterans. Mr. McCain received 42% of the votes from that group in Tuesday's primary.

County-by-county returns indicate that Senator McCain won three of Florida’s four “military” regions, where most of the active duty personnel and retirees are concentrated. McCain carried four of the five counties in the panhandle, an area that includes the Pensacola navy base; Whiting Field Naval Air Station; the massive Eglin AFB complex, and Hurlburt Field, home of Air Force Special Operations Command.

Senator McCain won by eleven-point margins in three of that area’s five counties, including Okaloosa, which has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of military voters, roughly 20% of the electorate. By comparison, Governor Romney won only one county in the region (Bay County, home to Tyndall AFB), and his margin of victory was only one point.

McCain also triumphed along the “Space Coast” in Brevard County (where Patrick AFB and Cape Canaveral are located), and in the four counties that make up the Tampa Bay metro region (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco). That region also has a large population of military personnel, assigned to MacDill AFB and the two major commands headquartered at that installation.

Given his victory in other military regions, McCain's loss in Jacksonville had to be disappointing. By one estimate, at least 30,000 voters in the area have some sort of military affiliation, including active duty personnel, dependents and retirees.

McCain also has personal ties to the area. Toward the end of his Navy career, he served as Executive Officer (and later, Commander) of an A-7 training unit in the Jacksonville area. In a sense, McCain has been well-known in the local naval community for more than 30 years. But those connections did not produce a majority among Jacksonville's Republican voters.

Without more detailed exit polling data, it’s difficult to reach firm conclusions about John McCain’s loss in Jacksonville. It’s possible that the Senator won a majority among military voters, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Romney’s support among other groups.

Mike Huckabee’s relatively poor showing in the Jacksonville area (he pulled less than 17% of the vote in three of the four counties) may have provided another boost for Romney. However, that trend didn’t apply to other military areas. Huckabee had similar numbers in the four counties that comprise the Tampa Bay metro area, which John McCain carried by an average of seven points.

As the race for the GOP nomination goes “national” with Super Tuesday, the focus on individual states (and key constituencies within those states) will become less important. While Senator McCain’s Florida win put him in position to claim more victories (and delegates) next week, his loss in Jacksonville is a bit puzzling.

In sharp contrast to South Carolina, where the state's large navy population (centered around Charleston) went overwhelmingly for McCain, the nation's third-largest Navy town, Jacksonville, rejected him by a wide margin.

Makes you wonder: do the people of Jacksonville know something that other voters missed?

Alternative Theory

According to various IT experts who responded to our recent post, the "blocking" of In From the Cold" at various DoD Force installations may not be the result of our series about the Minot nuclear incident, but rather, a change in filtering software used on government computer systems.

Mike, a military IT guy who blogs at suggests that the culprit may be a new filter called Bluecoat.

Well, the culprit behind not being able to visit Blogspot and many other blogs is BlueCoat Web Filter. Apparently the license for Smartfilter has expired and the powers that be bought off on Bluecoat instead. I know, I know, much like 90% of the things I ramble on about in my blog...who cares?

Well, a lot of us care, because the new filter (apparently) prevents access to a number of milblogs, including our favorite correspondent from the brown-shoe Navy, Neptunus Lex.

Yesterday, Op-For John mentioned in comments that these our humble digs had been blocked from view on at least one Air Force base because of - wait for it: Racism.

The charge seemed more than a little overblown to me as race qua race is simply not an issue I’ve spent much if any time writing about, not to mention the fact that I consider myself to be at least as enlightened on the topic as any Shelby Steele enthusiast of my age, race and gender. Probably more than most.Turning it over in my head, I pondered whether my occasional tendency to treat violent religious extremists roughly on these pages could be considered a form of “racism,” but unless an ideology that transcends race can itself be classified as a race, the connection seemed far fetched. Although the notion does raise intriguing ontological questions on the nature of “race” as a social construct - is it real, or received - I rather doubt the USAF asks those sorts of metaphysical questions when they block a site for objectionable content.

While the software explanation certainly makes sense, we find the timing rather odd. Our site has been around for almost three years, but the filter didn't cover our portion of the blogosphere until the Minot series appeared.

Additionally, there are plenty of blogs that can still be accessed on DoD computer systems. We asked a former colleague, now stationed at a base in the Midwest, to check on a few of our favorite websites and blogs, to see if they've been blocked, too. A quick check revealed that Powerline, Instapundit, Michelle Malkin, RealClearPolitics and Air Force Times (among others) were still accessible, as were the military-related blogs of Michael Yon, Strategy Page and The Danger Room.

We understand that the referenced computer systems belong to the Air Force and they can block whatever they want. We also realize that various USAF leaders have tried to be as lenient as possible in restricting internet content. But a little consistency would be helpful. None of the sites listed above are strangers to controversy; on occasion, some have posted observations that might be described as less-than-flattering to the military. But they are remain accessible through Air Force computers--as they should be (emphasis ours).

The notion of blocking some web content--porn sites and on-line casinos come to mind--is completely defensible. But restricting access to blogs and websites that provide a frank and balanced discussion of military issues is more difficult to fathom. A clarification from the Air Force (and DoD) would be both timely and welcome.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Banned in Boston?

Not quite, but we have been blocked at the Air Staff, at Langley AFB, and at MacDill, Hickam, and every other Air Force installation.

After posting our special report on last year's nuclear accident at Minot AFB, In From the Cold (apparently) became blog non grata for the Air Force. We received a flurry of e-mails Monday morning, notifying us that our blog could no longer be accessed from office computers at various Air Force bases.

Fine by us--the service invested a lot of dough in its IT network, and they can block whatever they want. I suppose there's a certain badge of infamy in joining the ranks of various porn sites, on-line casinos and various other outlets deemed inappropriate for our boys and girls in blue.

But we find the decision more than a bit ironic. So does veteran investigative reporter Susan Katz-Keating, who noted at her blog:

The series is not a hit job on the USAF. It is the product of meticulous, thoughtful reporting aimed at shedding much needed light. Seriously: We don't want to lose control of any of our nukes, ever. We need to learn from what happened at Minot. This report helps us do that.

That was our certainly our intent. Our Minot series is based on detailed interviews with various experts, including one of the service's most experienced nuclear weapons technicians, who has more than three decades of experience in that demanding career field. That source's reputation as a leader, manager and straight shooter is above reproach.

We should also note that our report does not contain any classified information. That was one of our ground rules in researching the series. As we've observed on numerous occasions, there are secrets that must be kept, even in a democracy. Some of those secrets involve the operational details our our nuclear weapons arsenal. Readers will find that our discussion of the actual incident--in terms of weapons and aircraft--was limited to what the Air Force has publicly disclosed.

And, for the record, we have never served with any of the key personalities involved in the Minot episode. So, the series isn't about settling old scores, or trying to make someone look bad.

Instead, the Minot story is one of human and system failings that triggered one of the nation's worst nuclear weapons mishaps. Those are the types of errors that (in our judgment) the public has a right to know about. More importantly, as Ms. Katz-Keating occurs, there is an opportunity to learn from this incident, and (hopefully) minimize the chances for similar accidents in the future.

In tomorrow's final installment of the series, we'll examine the long-term fallout from the mishap, and it's potential impact on the nation's security. As in previous articles, we will make every effort to present an objective assessment of the incident, based on what has been revealed so far.

For that, we make no apologies--even if it keeps us on the "blocked" list.

Can Military Voters Deliver McCain Again?

Today’s Republican primary in Florida appears headed for a photo-finish between Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Forty-eight hours before the polls opened, a Zogby poll showed the two candidates deadlocked at 30%, well ahead of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and New York Mayor Rudolph Guliani, who trail with 14 and 13%, respectively.

The former mayor, who skipped six straight early contests to focus on Florida, has slumped badly in the polls over the last month. The latest Rasmussen poll, also released on Sunday, showed Romney leading McCain by six points, and Guliani running a distant third, with only 14%.

With the Florida GOP primary now a two-man race, support of military voters and retirees may (again) prove crucial for McCain. They proved to be a decisive block in the recent South Carolina primary.

While active duty military and retirees represent only 14% of the electorate in the Palmetto State, they accounted for 25% of the 400,000 votes cast in last month’s Republican primary, and they broke solidly for McCain.

As we noted at the time, the Senator’s “triangle” of support included the coastal and Midlands counties that are home to that state’s Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force installations and most of South Carolina’s military retirees. McCain’s support among military voters was more than enough to offset Mike Huckabee’s advantage among evangelicals, concentrated in the upstate region.

Active duty and retired military members represent an even greater prize in Florida. Figures from the state House of Representatives indicated that almost 80,000 military personnel are stationed in the Sunshine State, along with 42,000 military spouses. Another estimate puts the number of military retirees in Florida at 180,000.

Additionally, there are thousands of military personnel who list the state as their home, but are stationed outside Florida. That group became the center of controversy during the 2000 presidential election, amid complaints that some military members (and dependents) had trouble obtaining absentee ballots, received them too late to be counted, and that Democrat operatives were attempting to “suppress” their votes.

Eight years later, it’s unclear how many military personnel have submitted absentee ballots for today’s GOP primary. However, that number may be very high, given the surge in early voting reported by the state Democratic and Republican parties. As of Sunday afternoon, almost a million people had voted early or cast absentee ballots, nearly matching the total turnout for the last contested GOP and Democratic primaries in Florida.

That’s why military voters represent such a key prize in today’s Republican primary. Despite the strains of on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, military members are much more likely to identify themselves as Republicans, in comparison to other Americans . As a 2004 Annenburg study revealed:

Forty-three percent called themselves Republican, 19 percent called themselves Democrats and 28 percent said they were independents. While the party identification of respondents in national polls moves around a bit from week to week, this was strikingly more Republican than the general population in the September 27-October 3 sample. There, 28 percent called themselves Republican, 34 percent Democratic and 27 percent independent.

Active duty military personnel and retirees are also more likely to vote than the general public, making them a reliable block for the Republican candidates they support.

So far, we haven’t seen any polling among Florida’s military population, so it’s hard to what sort of lead McCain has among that group, or if he has an actual advantage. But, in what’s shaping up as an extremely tight race, support among military personnel, retirees and dependents could propel the Senator to key victory, or hand him a stinging defeat. As tonight’s results come in, here are a few regions and counties to watch.

Northwest Florida: The region that includes Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay Counties is home to the Pensacola Naval Base; Whiting Field Naval Air Station; Tyndall AFB, Hurlburt Field and the sprawling Eglin AFB. Heavily Republican, these counties have one of the nation’s highest concentrations of active duty military personnel and retirees. There are at least 37,000 military voters in Okaloosa County alone, more than 20% of the local population--and a sizeable portion of the electorate.

The Jacksonville Area: Duval, Clay, St John’s and Nassau Counties. Jacksonville is a Navy town with three major military installations, while a number of armed forces retirees live in the surrounding counties. In South Carolina, McCain rolled up solid margins in the region around Charleston’s navy facilities, and he hopes to accomplish the same feat in northeast Florida.

The Space Coast: Brevard County is the home to Patrick AFB, Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, with another sizeable contingent of active duty military personnel and retirees.

Tampa-St. Petersburg: MacDill AFB (where CENTCOM and U.S. Special Operations Command have their headquarters) is located in Tampa, and there are significant numbers of military voters in the three counties that make up the metro area: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco.

There are smaller military clusters in southern Dade County (around Homestead Air Reserve Base), and in Monroe County, home of the Key West Naval Air Station.

In what promises to be a tight election, a few thousand votes in Florida’s “military counties” could make or break McCain’s chances.


ADDENDUM: A final ARG tracking poll from Florida (released this morning) shows Romney with a slight lead, 34-32%, but it’s within the survey’s margin of error. However, other, last-minute polls give Senator McCain a narrow advantage. That underscores the importance of today's military vote; in a close contest, gaining a plurality among the state’s 300,000 military voters may prove decisive (H/T: NRO’s The Corner).

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Spy Who Fell to Earth

Sometime in late February or early March a disabled U.S. spy satellite is expected to plunge to earth, creating a potential danger from falling debris.

Word of the satellite's projected return--and the related hazards--was announced Saturday by administration officials. A spokesman for the National Security Council said that "appropriate government agencies" are monitoring the situation. At this point, it's impossible to tell where remnants of the satellite might land, or serious the danger from debris might be posed.

According to The New York Times, the satellite in question is believed to be an experimental imagery bird, launched from Vandenburg AFB, California in December 2006, on board a Delta II rocket. Soon after it reached orbit, ground controllers lost the ability to control the satellite, and were never able to reestablish communications.

Described as "deaf, but not necessarily dead," the returning satellite is prompting concerns for three reasons. First, there's the outside chance that the satellite's large fuel tank, filled with hydrazine, might survive reentry. If that happens, the hydrazine would pose a toxic hazard to anyone exposed to it on the ground. The satellite may also contain beryllium, a toxin that is used in optical components on spy satellites.

Additionally, there are worries about sensitive technology falling into the wrong hands, if satellite wreckage lands in the wrong area. And finally, there's the prospect of debris causing injuries or damage, if it lands in a populated area..

We should emphasize that all of these scenarios are considered extremely remote. With water covering most of the earth's surface, there's a good chance that any wreckage that survives re-entry will fall into one of the world's oceans.

The spy satellite's demise should not have any impact on U.S. collection capabilities. With the loss of communications--and the inability of controllers to guide it--the satellite never became part of the U.S. surveillance constellation.

Loss of the imagery bird was one of a series of setbacks that have plagued America's spy satellite programs in recent years. Last June, the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Mike McConnell, cancelled the next generation of a "stealth" satellite program, known publicly as "Misty." Officials familiar with the decision said it was prompted by spiraling costs.

Two years earlier, the intelligence community terminated another satellite effort, dubbed Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) for similar reasons. Aimed at developing smaller and cheaper overhead platforms, the program (run by Boeing) ran into technical problems and cost overruns before being scrubbed. After Boeing lost the contract, the program was shifted to Lockheed, which was asked to restart production of an existing spy satellite design, with upgrades.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, McConnell bemoaned the state of the American satellite industry, noting that European companies can often build systems faster and cheaper. By comparison, a new U.S. spy satellite--though admittedly much more complex--can take a decade (and billions of dollars) to develop.

What Happened at Minot--an In From the Cold Special Report

Part II—Fixing a Broken Wing

By Nathan Hale

Author’s note: Part I of this series explored leadership mistakes that contributed to last year’s nuclear mishap at Minot AFB, North Dakota. In today’s second installment, we examine efforts to restore the nuclear mission of Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing, and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

It began as a routine, late-summer day at Minot AFB, North Dakota. Giant, eight-engine B-52 bombers, older than most of the pilots that flew them, lumbered aloft at regular intervals, heading out on scheduled training missions.

On the base flight line, maintenance crews worked on the aging jets, which rolled off the Boeing assembly line in the early 1960s. By some estimates, each hour of flying time generated $1200 in maintenance costs, making the “Buff” one of the most expensive aircraft in the Air Force inventory.

But no other bomber could match the payload of the B-52, and the service planned to keep them operational for another 30 years. That meant a bright future for Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing, one of only two B-52 units remaining in the Air Force.

On the morning of August 29, 2007, most of the Buffs parked at Minot bore the familiar “MT” designation on their tails, identifying them as part of the 5th BMW. But one of the bombers carried a different set of letters. The aircraft's “LA” markings indicated that it belonged to the 2nd Bomb Wing, stationed at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

The Barksdale bomber was on a ferry mission. Later that day, ground crews from Minot would load 12 advanced cruise missiles (ACMs) beneath the bomber’s wings, the next step in their retirement from the U.S. nuclear arsenal. With their nuclear warheads removed, the missiles would be flown to Barksdale for decommissioning. Personnel from the two bases had already completed five ferry missions; today would be number six.

Around 8 a.m. (local time), maintenance crews began removing the missiles from their storage bunker. By nine-thirty, the wing’s munitions control center approved their loading onto the B-52. The mounting operation proceeded at a leisurely pace, concluding eight hours later. With the missiles in place, the bomber sat on the ramp until the next morning, awaiting the return flight to Barksdale.

According to Air Force records, the B-52 departed Minot at 8:40 a.m., passing over portions of seven states before arriving at Barksdale three hours later. As the bomber crew headed off for debrief—and the start of a four-day weekend—the bomber and its missiles remained parked on the ramp for another ten hours. Maintenance crews weren’t scheduled to remove the missiles until later that night.

Around 8:30 p.m., a member of the load team noticed something unusual about the missiles and alerted a supervisor. Ninety minutes later, the airman’s suspicions were confirmed. Six of the missiles still had their nuclear warheads installed. Security was alerted and word of the incident raced up the chain of command, all the way to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and President George W. Bush.

The nation’s worst nuclear mishap in 40 years had just occurred.

Fallout from the incident was both immediate and long-lasting. As the Air Force launched multiple probes into the matter, it fired the 5th BMW commander, the maintenance group commander and the commander of the unit’s munitions maintenance squadron, citing “an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards.” The Operations Group Commander of Barksdale’s 2nd Bomb Wing (which “owned” the aircraft and crew involved in the incident) lost his job as well.

But the list of firings and disciplinary action didn’t stop there. The Chief Master Sergeant in charge of the wing’s special weapons flight was dismissed and reassigned; four of her top subordinates were demoted and transferred to other jobs at Minot. Scores of lower-ranking enlisted personnel received lesser forms of non-judicial punishment and lost their certification to work with nuclear weapons.

The mishap left the wing—and the Air Force—in a quandary. With the decertification of so many key personnel, the 5th BMW lost its qualification to conduct nuclear operations. Regaining that status meant retraining (and recertifying) more than 50 personnel to the exacting standards required for nuclear weapons work. Wing personnel also had to pass three demanding inspections, verifying their ability to safely store, maintain, safeguard, transport and, if necessary, employ nuclear systems.

And the timeline for meeting those goals was compressed, to say the least. Shortly after arriving at Minot, the new 5th BMW Commander, Colonel Joel Westa, announced a goal of completing recertification by mid-February. The first hurdle in that process would be an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI), scheduled for mid-December, and conducted by the Air Combat Command Inspector General (IG) team.

More than 200 inspectors participated in the evaluation, which examined personnel, procedures and paperwork. But when the results were revealed on 19 December, the headline took some observers by surprise. Both Col Westa and the Wing’s Chief of Public Affairs, Major Laurie Arellano, announced that the unit would “be given more time to prepare” for the follow-on nuclear surety inspection, originally scheduled for the following month.

“The inspectors have determined we need more time to make the necessary changes and allow us to accomplish long-term solutions, including filling critical leadership billets that are currently vacant,” Arellano told local media outlets. “We are thankful we can take the time needed rather than being forced into an artificial timeline, so the NSI will be postponed until the wing and the command are confident the right people and processes are in place.”

“Getting this mission perfected and recertified is the No. 1 priority of the command and the wing,” she continued. “We are taking a holistic look at the wing. That includes ensuring that we fill leadership positions that are currently vacant and build the teams necessary, with the leadership in place to oversee the long-term changes.”

What Major Arellano (and her boss) didn’t disclose was the underlying reason for Minot’s extension. Multiple sources tell In From the Cold that the 5th BMW received a grade of “Not Ready” on its INSI, the lowest possible rating. While not technically considered a failing grade, the score indicated that the wing was not ready for follow-on inspections, or recertification for its nuclear mission. Against that reality, the inspection team and the Air Force had no choice but to give the unit more time.

Reasons for the unit’s low grade—like the score itself—have not been publicly revealed. But reliable sources suggest that the “Not Ready” mark hinged on a single incident, which highlighted continuing problems with the bomb wing’s training and documentation efforts.

As a retired nuclear weapons expert described it: “During one of the nuclear weapons technical operations, a Bay Chief torqued a bolt. He torqued it correctly, but he was not formally certified to perform maintenance on nuclear weapons.”

That represented a red-letter violation. Training to work on nuclear weapons is very intensive. Maintenance personnel and other specialists first train on practice weapons before graduating to nuclear warheads. Individual training records have tasks identified and technicians must be started on the task and closed on the task. In the case of critical skills, also known as core tasks, another person must observe the specialist performing that function and initial the training records.

Nuclear technicians must also be cleared to perform certifiable tasks. That process requires that a Quality Assurance inspector observe the work, and pronounce the person certified. Select functions, such as transfer or transport of a nuclear warhead, require special certifications, above and beyond other training. Only after meeting all of those requirements can a technician become certified and perform maintenance on nuclear weapons.

Documentation of required training is extremely detailed, and mistakes do occur. But, as a former nuclear weapons NCO observed, simple documentation mistakes are not usually enough to drive a “Not Ready” rating. He suggests that the leadership void, created by the wave of firings and reassignments at Minot, and coupled with a faulty training program, led to the critical error.

“Since many experienced senior NCOs were removed from their jobs, this Bay Chief was probably moved up into his position. He was probably a Team Chief who was used to doing maintenance, so he didn’t think twice. Just picked up the torque wrench and tightened the bolt. In this case, the inspection team was being exceptionally picky, or the errors were egregious.”

The 5th Bomb Wing’s low score on the INSI—and the decision to delay subsequent inspections—raised new questions about the rush to recertify the unit. While it’s unclear who drove the original inspection schedule, the retired weapons NCO (who now works as a DoD consultant) believes wing leadership had the option of asking for more time, before the INSI.

“If Colonel Westa thought Minot needed more time to prepare, all he had to do was ask. He can get anything he wants right now. He didn’t ask. Tells me he didn’t realize they weren’t prepared.”

“I am surprised the new Wing Commander wasn’t more aware of the training problems,” the weapons expert continued. “He should have asked for more time. Implies to me that his officers and senior NCOs aren’t very sharp.”

The 5th Bomb Wing public affairs office did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on the INSI results, or efforts to recertify the wing.

While the ACC inspection team identified clear problems at Minot, the former weapons NCO suggested that the evaluation process is far from perfect. “Inspections are just snapshots in time,” he observed. And, more recently, “inspection time has been reduced as manning is cut. Inspections are no longer no-notice.”

He also suggested that cronyism has affected the evaluation process.

[Individuals] are chosen for those [inspector] slots based on friendship and who they know, or sometimes, because they are the only body available. Deficiencies have been dropped because the wing commander is a friend or someone vetted for the general. The saying in the nuclear career field is ‘incestuous.’ The guy you fail on an inspection today may be your boss next year.”

According to the retired weapons inspector, evaluations only provide a limited defense against “cowboy maintenance,” the tendency of personnel to cut corners or ignore required procedures in an effort to save time, or meet production quotas. He believes that cowboy maintainers were a key factor in the Minot mishap.

“My understanding is that the schedule [for decommissioning Advanced Cruise Missiles] changed. The pylon that was originally to have the warheads removed was never brought up to the Inspection and Maintenance Facility (IMF) to have the work done. The correct pylon was brought in and the warheads removed.

“At this point the schedule broke down. The enlisted folks who do the maintenance seemed to think they knew what the schedule was. They went to the structure and picked up the originally scheduled pylon even though the warheads had not been removed. No one checked to see if they were installed because they thought they knew what they were doing.”

While mistakes had already been made, the former nuclear weapons tech observes that the unauthorized transfer might still have been prevented.

“Munitions control could have saved the day by merely checking their database and ensuring that the pylon had the warheads removed. I was told by sources at Air Combat Command that the database showed the pylon still had the weapons installed, but the munitions controller they talked to said it ‘wasn’t his job’ to check that stuff.”

“To me, that is dereliction of duty. Failure to follow written instructions, because the Air Force instruction says that is his job.”

The retired NCO describes many of the “cowboys” as head-strong airmen who need constant supervision.

“You know what; there are 19 and 20-year-olds controlling the movements of these weapons. Some of them are just real egos. It takes strong NCOs to lean on them and make them pay attention to details. When you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, it just seems so easy. But this is not a new phenomenon. I worked with plenty of airmen when I was young who thought they knew it all,” he continued. “

It took NCOs to either baby sit and ensures they didn’t get into trouble, or humiliate the ego out of them. When the airmen start running things, no matter how smart or self-assured they are, there will be trouble.

As a case in point, he cited the Air Force’s last major nuclear weapons accident, which resulted in the destruction of a Titan II missile near Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. The mishap occurred after a socket fell down the silo, puncturing one of the missile’s fuel tanks. Explosive fumes eventually filled the structure and later ignited, creating a blast that destroyed the silo and missile, and tossed the Titan II’s nuclear warhead a distance of several hundred yards.

Investigators later blamed the disaster on maintenance technicians, who failed to tether tools being used in the silo--a step mandated by Air Force regulations.

In the wake of the Minot incident, the service has implemented tighter accountability procedures for nuclear weapons. The former nuclear inspector reports that some computer-generated tracking products have been replaced by custody documents that must be signed (and accounted for) by maintainers or aircrew personnel.

In one of the newest changes, custody documents are now required for weapons moving from storage to a maintenance facility. Previously, transfer of a weapon from a storage facility to maintenance was not considered a change of custody.

But will various Air Force investigations into the matter —and changes in procedures—be enough to prevent a similar mishap in the future? Sources contacted by In From the Cold have their doubts.

“It wouldn’t have mattered if a thousand more signatures were required,” muttered the retired senior NCO. “Once everyone accepted the pylon did not have nuclear warheads, then all the rules were out the window. Those new custody documents would have simply been more documentation that the handling crew would not have accomplished.”

He believes that available technology could help prevent similar events in the future, while cautioning that such systems are not a panacea. The former weapons inspector noted that radiological scanners could be put at the gates of weapons storage areas. “If a pylon rolls through that should be cold but shows up hot, then obviously something’s wrong. Will the Air Force spend the money? Probably not. There’s no money unless it comes from other projects.”

And, he believes the service has yet to learn the most elementary lesson from the Minot accident: with human beings “in the loop,” you cannot prevent all mistakes and the Air Force must be prepared to deal with the consequences.

“I’ve seen plenty of serious mistakes in my years of service that cost lots of money; thank God no one was hurt,” he recalled. “Is the incident isolated? That incident was isolated to Minot. But we used to joke that if you painted “trainer” on a real weapon, you could roll it out the WSA (weapons storage area) gate.”

“Is the fact that airmen violate safety and security rules isolated to Minot? No. And in my opinion, the investigation is all eyewash. They know what the cause was and they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to print paper that will go in a file and never be seen again.”

Coming Wednesday: a look at the potential long-term consequences of the Minot incident and what it could mean for the nation’s security.

Another Old Soldier Fades Away

When J. Russell Coffey passed away last month in an Ohio nursing home, it made national headlines. Mr. Coffey, a retired college professor, was one of only three remaining U.S. veterans of World War I. With his death--at the age of 109--there are now only two surviving doughboys among the million who served in the "war to end all wars."

The recent passing of Louis de Cazenave attracted even wider attention. Mr. de Cazenave, who died last Monday at the age of 110, was one of two surviving French veterans of the Great War, which claimed the lives of 1.4 million of his countrymen. Newpapers around the world reported de Cazenave's passing, which prompted a statement from French President Nicholas Sarkozy:

"His death is an occasion for all of us to think of the 1.4 million French who sacrificed their lives during this conflict, for the 4.5 million wounded, for the 8.5 million mobilized," Sarkozy observed.

Among the handful of World War I soldiers who lived into the 21st Century, Mr. de Cazenave also held the distinction of being a combat veteran. He participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which claimed the lives of more than one million troops, and later served with an artillery unit before the war ended. None of the surviving American veterans of the war served in combat and only one of them deployed overseas before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

By comparison, Erich Kaestner received almost no attention when he passed away in a Cologne, Germany, nursing home on New Year's Day. Mr. Kaester, who was 107 at the time of his passing, was best known as a long-serving judge in Hanover, receiving the Merit Cross for his work on the bench. Germany's president also recognized Kaester for his 75-year marriage to his wife, Maria, who passed away at the age of 102 in 2003.

According to the Associated Press, it wasn't until someone read his obituary--and updated a Wikipedia entry--that Kaester's passing took on added significance. According to at least three German media outlets, Kaester was (at the time of his death) the country's last World War I veteran, although that claim is difficult to verify.

After losing both world wars--and stung by the shame of Nazi genocide for more than six decades--Germany has no governmental mechanism for tracking veterans of those conflicts. The country's Defense Ministry, it's military archive and war graves commission told the AP that they have no records on other surviving soldiers from World War I.

“That is the way history has developed,” Kaestner’s son, Peter Kaestner, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “In Germany, in this respect, these things are kept quiet — they’re not a big deal.”

Born in 1900, Kaestner entered the military in 1918, shortly after his graduation from high school. After completing training, he was sent to the Western Front but never entered combat, according to Kaestner's son. He rejoined the military in 1939 and served as a ground support officer for the Luftwaffe, primarily in France.

Toward the end of his life, Erich Kaestner's status as one of the last surviving World War I veteran was apparently better known in the United States than his native Germany. According to Peter Kaestner, his father routinely received requests for autographs from the U.S., but he never responded.

With Kaestner's passing, the only remaining German with military service during World War I is Franz Kunstler, who fought with the Austro-Hungarian Army during that conflict. While an ethnic German, Kunstler spent the first half of his life in Hungary, and didn't move to Germany until after World War II. There are unconfirmed reports that Mr. Kunstler passed away late last week.

The deaths of Russell Coffey, Louis de Cazenave and Erich Kaestner serve as poignant reminders that the end of an era is rapidly approaching. Of the millions who served in uniform between 1914-1918, only a handful remain--just 15 by one recent count.

While some of the surviving vets have been interviewed by historians, scores who passed before them never had that opportunity. "We have lost a chance--forever," der Spiegel wrote last week, in noting Kaestner's passing. It's a sentiment that echoes from both sides of the trenches, almost 90 years after the guns fell silent.

Friday, January 25, 2008

What Happened at Minot--an In From the Cold Special Report

A B-52H departs Minot AFB, North Dakota (USAF Photo)

Part I: A Failure of Leadership

by Nathan Hale

Author's note: Over the past five months, this blog has provided extensive coverage of last summer’s nuclear incident at Minot AFB, North Dakota. In an effort to learn more about the mishap, we’ve spoken at length with a number of experts, including some of the Air Force's leading authorities on nuclear weapons maintenance and accountability procedures. Information from those experts—and other sources—has allowed us to develop a detailed account of what went wrong at Minot. The first in our three-part series focuses on key leaders at the base and their role in the mishap.

A “perfect storm” of failed leadership, lax supervision, ineffective internal communication, inexperienced personnel and poor career field management led to last year’s nuclear incident at Minot AFB, North Dakota, resulting in the unauthorized transfer of six-nuclear tipped missiles to an installation in Louisiana.

That damning assessment was offered by former Air Force experts on nuclear weapons maintenance, security and training--retired officers and non-commissioned officer with decades of experience in that demanding profession. They are intimately familiar with the munitions—and procedures—involved in the Minot incident, having worked with Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) that use the same warhead. Additionally, two of the experts personally know (or have served with) the senior NCOs assigned to Minot’s munitions maintenance complex at the time of the mishap.

While never assigned to the North Dakota base, the retired nuclear weapons technicians served in maintenance and leadership positions at other northern-tier nuclear units, and one of them participated in several inspections at Minot. After leaving active duty, he worked as a Defense Department consultant, and assisted in developing regulations governing the maintenance of nuclear weapons. The former inspector--and the other experts--spoke with In From the Cold on the condition of anonymity.


Reflecting on the Minot incident, the retired nuclear weapons specialist observed that all of the factors that contributed to the mishap were “interrelated. While he does not believe that a single failure was more important that others, he voiced strong concerns about the leadership issues that set the stage for the incident.

As a result of those errors, six Advanced Cruise Missiles, with nuclear warheads attached, were loaded on a B-52 bomber and flown to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on 29 August. The mistake wasn’t discovered until after the bomber landed at its destination. By that time, the six warheads had been “missing” for roughly 36 hours.

The weapons mishap was a major embarrassment for the Air Force and the most serious breach of nuclear security protocols in 40 years. President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were briefed on the incident, and members of Congress called for an investigation. So far, the service has launched three separate probes of the incident; one was completed late last year; the second inquiry, headed by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, will be submitted in the coming weeks. A third panel, headed by Major General Polly Peyer, is expected to report its findings next month.

Four senior Air Force officers, including the commander of Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing, were fired from their jobs because of the incident, and the unit lost its certification for nuclear operations. Crews from Minot were responsible for loading the weapons onto the aircraft, which was assigned to Barksdale’s 2nd Bomb Wing. Additionally, the Chief Master Sergeant who served as superintendent of Minot's special weapons flight was moved to a new job; four other senior NCOs were reported demoted, and more than 60 personnel—most of them from Minot—lost their individual certification to work with nuclear weapons.

The Air Force has not published its initial report on the mishap, but the service did hold a Friday afternoon press conference in mid-October, outlining its plan for punishing those deemed culpable, and preventing future incident of that type. But the press event did not address the accident’s underlying factors and media coverage—predictably--focused on the officers who lost their jobs.

Taking a more analytical approach in assessing the incident, a former weapons inspector places much of the blame on human factors, beginning with senior NCOs assigned to Minot’s 5th Munitions Maintenance Squadron. He believes that the former chief of the unit’s special weapons flight, Chief Master Sergeant Brenda Langlois, had “a major role in the failure,” claiming that “she was poorly prepared for her job.”

“She’s an excellent award writer, but not a career field expert,” the source explained. “She had been out of maintenance, in staff jobs, for almost seven years prior to being assigned to Minot.”

The retired munitions expert also reported that Chief Langlois delegated some of her responsibilities, and spent time on activities that little to do with her job.

“I understand she spent little time in the Weapons Storage Area. She chose to groom Senior Master Sergeants, who like her, looked good on paper, but didn’t know how to lead or manage.

“In the months before the incident, she was signed up to speak at the Air Force Women’s Symposium as a leader in her career field, and at the ‘Tribute to Women in the Military’ in New Mexico as a “Trail Blazer.” The focus was on her, not on the work being done.”

As evidence of Langlois’ lax attitude, the former nuclear specialist described a Senior Munitions Manager conference, which he attended with the Chief. “We were hammering out the wording of AFI (Air Force Instruction) 21-204, the instruction that details all nuclear weapons maintenance policy, and yet she has no input. For the entire week, she had nothing to say.”

He also faulted Chief Langlois for the training problems that became evident after the incident was discovered—and a number of Minot maintenance personnel lost their certification for working on nukes.

“It’s the Chief’s job to ensure people are properly trained. Whenever you have a program as detailed and paperwork intensive as the nuclear weapons training program, it is ripe to be ‘pencil whipped.’ If you don’t watch supervisors closely they can sign people off as qualified to perform tasks when in fact they aren’t. If your quality assurance evaluator isn’t top-notch, they may certify technicians on weapons maintenance tasks when they aren’t proficient.”

The retired weapons specialist also faulted other leaders in the organization, including the senior NCOs who worked for Langlois. He reports at least four members of that group were demoted as a result of the incident, while lower-ranking personnel received lesser forms of non-judicial punishment. Sources at Minot tell In From the Cold that the demoted senior NCOs (in grades E-7 and E-8) have also been reassigned to other jobs at the base.

Unlike her top subordinates, Chief Master Sergeant Langlois did not lose a stripe because of the incident. She is currently assigned to the Air Force Smart Operations (AFSO) Office at Minot, charged with implementing Sigma Six management principles at the installation. She did not respond to an e-mail request for comments on the nuclear incident, or her role in the training process.

Junior and mid-level officers in the Minot maintenance chain also escaped serious punishment and remain on the job. “Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?” the source asked. He thinks the double standard raises concerns about the management team still in place. “If they didn’t see how ineffective their senior NCOs were, they weren’t very effective themselves,” he observed.

Another former weapons specialist believes the leadership issues at Minot are evidence of wider problems within the nuclear weapons career field. “No one cares about nuclear weapons anymore,” he observed. “The enlisted career field is shrinking. Most of the assignments are in crappy places like North Dakota or Shreveport. By the time a troop gets to be a Senior NCO, they usually have kids in high school; no one wants to move the family to Minot, or Montana or overseas. They get out in droves.”

And for those who stay, prospects for advancement—and good assignments—are limited.

“Only one nuke troop was promoted to Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) last year. Why stay in a career field where your chances of getting promoted are so low? They have cross-trained senior NCOs from missile maintenance and even supply to fill the [nuclear] ranks because the Air Force is cutting manpower in favor of UAVs and fighters.”

The result, he says, is a career field where experience levels are dropping, particularly among the NCOs and officers who provide critical leadership.

“No officer wants to be in nukes,” the source explained. “It’s boring, picky, and can be a real career ender. The glory is in the war. Even conventional munitions is better because they get a chance to deploy to the Middle East and build up bombs for combat. Nuke techs are a drag on resources because they typically don’t deploy. Senior officers fill the key slots just to fill a square on their resumes.”

Problems at Minot also extended up the chain of command. The 5th BMW Commander who was fired because of the incident (Colonel Bruce Emig), had been on the job less than three months at the time of the unauthorized transfer. Colonel Cynthia Lundell, who ran the wing’s maintenance group, also got the axe, along with the commander of a subordinate munitions maintenance squadron.

While acknowledging that Emig, Lundell and the squadron commander should have been proactive in addressing organizational problems, the former weapons specialist believes the break-down began well before their change-of-command ceremonies.

“Of course the last [wing] commander (Colonel Eldon Woodie) bears some responsibility. When you have as many people ignoring the rules as you do at Minot, it could not have happened overnight.” The retired nuclear inspector also noted the tendency of some units to “throttle back” after an inspection. The 5th BMW earned high marks during a 2006 Nuclear Surety Inspection, which evaluated the unit’s ability to store, maintain and handle nuclear weapons.

Despite the successful evaluation—and the scheduled change-of-command—members of the 5th BMW should have remained focused and vigilant. “That doesn’t mean the mission won’t go on,” the nuclear expert observed. “There are still inspections down the road.”


In the wake of the nuclear incident, Minot experienced a raft leadership changes. Colonel Emig was removed from his post in mid-October, roughly six weeks after the mishap. He was replaced by Colonel Joel Westa, the former Vice-Commander of the 36th Strategic Wing at Andersen AFB, Guam.

Lundell’s successor, Colonel Don Kirkland, arrived at Minot in November. The retired weapons expert described Kirkland as a “big dog” brought in from Minot’s parent organization (Air Combat Command headquarters), with a mandate to fix the troubled maintenance complex.

With Colonel Westa and Colonel Kirkland in place, the 5th Bomb Wing and its maintenance group launched an accelerated effort to fix problems that led to the August incident, and regain the unit’s nuclear certification. But they faced an uphill struggle.

With many of Minot’s nuclear technicians de-certified, personnel from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana were brought in to handle day-to-day weapons maintenance and other key tasks. Sources at the base indicate that more than 40 Barksdale airmen were dispatched to Minot, and the cost of their billeting and per diem created concerns about who would pay the bill, an estimated $130,000 a month.

Meanwhile, the 5th BMW began the process of recertifying its personnel for the nuclear mission. Time became an immediate concern. In early November, Colonel Westa announced that the 5th BMW hoped to complete required training and inspections, and regain its certification by mid-February. Meeting that goal meant the wing would have re-certify most of its personnel, then pass an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI) in December, a follow-up Nuclear Surety Inspection in January and a unit compliance evaluation after that.

It was an ambitious schedule, to say the least. In preparation, members of the wing began working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. While other Air Force units looked forward to an extended holiday break, airmen of the 5th BMW were only promised a single day off—Christmas Day. Morale sagged.

But if the mood at Minot was already glum, it turned black on December 19th. That was the day that the Air Combat Command Inspector General (IG) Team released the results of the wing’s Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI). Their findings revealed continuing problems at Minot, and suggested that fixing the wing might not be as easy as first imagined.

Monday: Why Minot was given “more time” to get ready for its upcoming inspections, and a detailed look at how nuclear-tipped missiles were inadvertently loaded onto a B-52 and flown across the country. Could the same thing happen again?

The Latest Military Phony

Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (FMF) Dontae Tazewell receives the Bronze Star and Purple Heart in a ceremony in Norfolk on 14 July 2006. A subsequent investigation revealed that Tazewell never earned those decorations and apparently forged the paperwork after returning from a Middle East deployment. Tazewell used the medals to earn a promotion to E-5 and avoid separation. He's now facing 24 months in the brig, demotion to E-1 and a bad conduct discharge (U.S. Navy photo via Navy Times)

Back in 2006, Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Dontae Lee Tazewell had a little problem. He failed an advancement exam and was facing discharge from the Navy, because he hadn't reached E-5 in the required eight years.

So, Tazewell devised a plan to get his needed promotion. Realizing that he would earn additional points for awards and decorations, Corpsman Tazewell forged paperwork that gave him a Bronze Star with “V,” Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Commendation Medal and various other medals, according to Navy Times.

He also concocted a story to explain his chestful of medals. Tazewell claimed that he rescued six Marines and recovered the bodies of four others after an ambush during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In reality, Tazewell served at aid stations in Kuwait, and there's some question as to whether he actually set foot in Iraq.

Still. Tazewell's little con job worked for a while. Despite the fact that his medal paperwork was "almost wholly inconsistent with recognized standards," someone in the Navy chain bought his story. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star at a ceremony at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia two years ago. Stories about his "exploits" appeared in the Portsmouth base newspaper and other military publications.

But his claims quickly unraveled. An investigation revealed that none of the corpsmen in Tazewell's unit saw combat. The phony medal citations and related forms were apparently created by Tazewell at his stateside assignment, a Navy clinic in Yorktown, Virginia.

Yesterday, a military judge in Norfolk convicted Tazewell on 10 counts of wearing unauthorized ribbons, and sentenced him to 24 months in the brig, reduction in grade to Seaman, and a bad conduct discharge upon his release. The judge, Navy Capt. Patricia Battin, dismissed the more serious charges of forging the medal paperwork.

In his arguments, Tazewell's military lawyer focused on his client's troubled childhood and recent health problems. Since returning from the Middle East, Tazewell has suffered from a gastric illness which required steriod treatments. The steroids caused severe bone damage, forcing Tazewell to undergo a double hip replacement last year.

"Petty Officer Tazewell, in serving his country, will not leave the Navy in the same condition he came in," argued his lawyer, Lt. Matthew Cutchen.

But prosecutors focused on Tazewell's criminal conduct. Lt Matthew Wooten, who handled the case for the government said "This is about a person who had a plan to con the U.S. Navy. He was never in combat, never even scratched."

Tazewell's conviction carries an automatic appeal, but its exceedingly doubtful that a military appeals court will overturn Thursday's decision, or approve a request for clemency. Having destroyed his military career, Tazewell will emerge from the brig in 2009 with the stigma of a bad conduct discharge, decreasing his chances for a meaningful civilian career.

We'd say Tazewell got what he deserved. And we'd also say the Navy did the right thing, by taking the case to a courts-martial, rather than pushing Tazewell out the door with some sort of administrative discharge. By making him an example, the Navy sent a clear message through the ranks: wearing medals you never earned is a criminal offense, and it can end your military career.

The other services should follow the Navy's example; Tazewell isn't the only service member wearing decorations that were never earned. Those phonies should also be exposed and receive the same sort of punishment.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sex, Drugs and a DoD Consulting Gig?

..the next time your kid and his band rehearse in the garage, don't yell at them to hold down the noise, or threaten to kick them out of the house. With a little luck (and a lot of talent), they can become rock stars, and after that fizzles out, transition to a new career as defense consultants.

Don't laugh--it could happen. In case you haven't heard, U2's Bono was at the Pentagon yesterday, for a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. According to DoD spokesman Geoff Morrell, the two men discussed a variety of topics during their 20-minute meeting, including U.S. plans to establish a military command for Africa:

"I think this was a chance for two people who care about the problems facing the continent of Africa to talk about their shared interest in solving those problems," Morrell said of the meeting that was not publicized in advance.

A spokeswoman for DATA, the group co-founded by Bono to fight poverty and AIDS in Africa, said the singer had been in Washington to meet members of budget committees in Congress.

"He also met with Secretary Gates to discuss global poverty and the connection between fighting poverty and peace and stability," Kathy McKiernan said.

While Bono has long been viewed as an "expert" on African affairs, it's doubtful that he had any substantive discussions with Mr. Gates during short meeting. And quite frankly, we wonder if the event wasn't a p.r. stunt (although the get-together wasn't announced in advance), or simply a chance for Pentagon swells to meet one of their favorite rockers. At the next Pentagon press brief, someone ought to ask Dr. Gates or Geoff Morrell how many U2 CDs are in their personal collections, or if Bono signed any autographs during his visit.

On the other hand, DoD may genuinely want Bono's expertise and advice on matters relating to Africa, to assist in the stand-up of that new command. Never mind that the Irish rocker's "solution" for Africa--debt forgiveness and more aid--hasn't worked very well. Putting a celebrity on a civilian advisory board is a good way to build interest for the new command. And, it couldn't hurt in the funding department, either. Various Congressmen have also expressed admiration for Bono's efforts in Africa, so if he's on board with the command, then budget dollars are likely to follow.

If the Pentagon is serious about using Bono as a consultant on African issues, then he'll need a security clearance. At one time, the notion of clearing anyone with a sex/drugs/rock-and-roll resume would have ridiculed. But in the post-modern era, that trail has already been blazed. As Gary Aldrich wrote in Unlimited Access, Top Secret clearances were granted to various Clinton staffers in the 1990s, despite personal, sexual and pharmacological practices that would disqualify mortal men and women.

And, at least one other rock star is already serving as a DoD advisor. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, a former member of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, has worked as a consultant of missile defense issues for almost 20 years. By various accounts, Mr. Baxter was among the first to suggest that the Navy's Aegis air defense system be modified for a BMD mission. He's also been hailed as an innovative thinker who brings a "fresh perspective" to defense matters.

In fairness, Baxter's work has also been described in public relations terms. One defense contractor likened him to an "ambassador for missile defense to the Rolling Stone crowd." Having observed a few of his visits to intel organizations, the description may not be totally unfair; the events usually include an autograph session, giving Mr. Baxter a chance to sign a few album covers for appreciative fans.

But Mr. Baxter is also a serious student of missile defense, with a firm grasp of the technical details associated with that enterprise. I'm not sure he lives up to that reputation as an original thinker, but watching him in Q-and-A sessions after technical briefings, Mr. Baxter doesn't embarrass himself, either. And, he's cleared for exceptionally sensitive material, regardless of what happened during the 1970s.

Baxter has apparently earned his spurs as a defense advisor, and Bono may be given the same opportunity with Africa Command. The strange trip from rock star to military consultant may not be so strange after all. That wailing from your kid's garage band may be the first step on a journey to the E-Ring.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Today's Reading Assignment

Philip Giraldi in the American Conservative, on the damning allegations of virtually unknown FBI whistleblower, Sibel Edmonds. A former contract translator at the agency, Ms. Edmonds has leveled charges that are jaw-dropping, and (if confirmed) could shakes the highest reaches of our diplomatic and security establishments. As Giraldi writes...

[She] tells a chilling story of corruption at Washington’s highest levels—sale of nuclear secrets, shielding of terrorist suspects, illegal arms transfers, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, espionage. She may be a first-rate fabulist, but Edmonds’s account is full of dates, places, and names. And if she is to be believed, a treasonous plot to embed moles in American military and nuclear installations and pass sensitive intelligence to Israeli, Pakistani, and Turkish sources was facilitated by figures in the upper echelons of the State and Defense Departments.

Mr. Giraldi notes that Edmonds' claims have attracted little interest in Congress, and the Justice Department has shrouded its inquiry in secrecy. Yet, the charges could be easily affirmed (or refuted) by simply releasing available files on the case--something else the government appears hesitant to do.

H/T: The Belmont Club


Ms. Edmonds' accusations sound intriguing, to say the least. Still, you've got to wonder how a single contract translator could uncover so much incriminating information, during a limited tenure with the FBI.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pyongyang Takes Notice

An F-16 piloted by the 79th Fighter Squadron commander lands at Kunsan AB, Korea, on January 15th. The unit, normally based at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, recently began a four-month AEF rotation to the Far East (USAF photo via

In a recent post, we noted the swap-out of Block 30 F-16s at the USAF's 8th Fighter Wing, located at Kunsan AB, Korea. Over the past four months, the wing (better known as The Wolfpack) has been trading its older jets for newer, more capable Block 40 models. Aircraft previously stationed at Kunsan are moving to Eielson AFB, Alaska, where they will serve with a newly-formed Aggressor Squadron. And, in the midst of the aircraft transition, a CONUS-based F-16 squadron has begun a four-month deployment to the base.

Not surprisingly, the activity at Kunsan has attracted the attention of neighboring North Korea, which has issued a perfunctory propaganda blast. According to the AP, Pyongyang has criticized the recent deployment of a U.S.-based F-16 squadron to Kunsan, saying it will only "aggravate" tensions on the peninsula and disrupt nuclear negotiations.

“We will strongly cope with any provocation and pressure that threaten peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Anyone who knows anything about the DPRK understands that Kim Jong-il and his minions will slam the U.S. at the drop of a hat. The F-16 deployment merely provided the latest opportunity --and a pretext for continued stalling on the nuclear issue. North Korea recently missed a year-end deadline to fully disable a nuclear reactor and come clean on its various, nuclear-related activities. Arrival of the 79th Fighter Squadron (from Shaw AFB, South Carolina) gave Pyongyang an opportunity to shift blame for the impasse.

Of course, if the squadron hadn't deployed to Kunsan, the propaganda ministry in Pyongyang would have found another reason to blast the U.S.--and justify their nuclear rope-a-dope tactics. If history is any judge, the standoff will persist through the deployment and continue long after the F-16 squadron returns home.

At this point, the North Koreans have simply decided that further cooperation isn't in their best interest, and they've retreated to their familiar, recalcitrant position. They probably won't budge on the nuclear issues until the U.S. and South Korea deliver more energy assistance, or move ahead with tougher sanctions. It's the familiar "stall/threaten/stall some more/concede/fail to comply/stall/threaten/stall again" approach that Pyongyang has repeatedly used in its dealings with Washington and Seoul. And, contrary to the propaganda proclamation, it has nothing to do with the number of U.S. aircraft on the Korean peninsula.

An article posted at indicates that members of the 79th will remain in Korea through the end of May, working with their Wolfpack and ROKAF counterparts. The rotation is being described as a routine, Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) deployment to the Far East--an event that has occurred with regularity in recent years.

But the timing--and location--of the deployment is no accident. While the transition from Block 30 to Block 40 F-16s at Kunsan has been smooth, the presence of the 79th provides a little added "insurance," in the event of possible transition "hiccups," or if North Korea decides to start something.