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.