Michael Hoffman of the Military Times newspapers has learned that the Air Force recorded at least 237 "safety deficiencies" involving nuclear weapons since 2001. The information was contained in safety records obtained by the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The organization originally requested a list of safety deficiencies in the service's Air Combat Command (ACC) dating back to 1991, when ACC inherited much of the Air Force's nuclear mission from Strategic Air Command, which was disbanded. However, the information received by the FAS--and provided to the Times--covered only a six-year period, ending in 2007.
An ACC spokesman said the command's safety database no longer has any records of nuclear safety incidents--known as "Dull Swords"--during the earlier period. Air Force officials could not explain why the earlier incidents had been deleted from the database.
According to available data, the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, accounted for most of the Dull Sword reports. Between 2001-2007, there were a total of 111 safety deficiencies at the B-2 base, more than twice the number at other bomber units.
By comparison, the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota reported 45 Dull Sword incidents during the same period, while the 2nd Bomb Wing (stationed at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana) had 50 safety deficiencies. The Minot and Barksdale units were involved in last year's unauthorized transfer of six-nuclear tipped cruise missiles on a B-52 bomber, a mishap that led to the dismissal of four senior officers, and suspension of the 5th Bomb Wing's nuclear mission.
"Dull Sword" is a Defense Department term used to describe incidents involving nuclear weapons. Under that heading, individual accidents may be classified as a "Nucflash," "Broken Arrow" or "Bent Spear." A "Nucflash" is defined as a nuclear accident that is expected to lead to war; a "Broken Arrow" is not expected to cause a conflict, and a Bent Spear is defined as a "significant incident" involving nuclear weapons.
Judging from the material released by the Air Force, virtually all of the nuclear mishaps in recent years fell under that latter category. As Mr. Hoffman reports:
The list of Dull Sword records provided by the Air Force includes a short description of what failed each time, ranging from failures in the Personal Reliability Program — which is used to determine the airmen who can handle nuclear weapons — to broken towing vehicles used to transport the warheads from the storage units to the bombers, to unexplained problems with the equipment designed to carry the nuclear weapons on the aircraft.
No Bent Spear events — or “significant incidents” involving a nuclear weapon — could be found in the database, even though last August’s accident when a B-52 Stratofortress bomber mistakenly flew six nuclear warheads from Minot to Barksdale [has been] called a Bent Spear by service officials.
Still, there has been a significant rise in Dull Sword events in recent years. ACC reported only one incident of that type in 2001, and just five in 2002. Four years later, the number of Dull Sword reports from ACC nuclear units had reached 63.
No explanation was given for the increase, but in our recent series on the Minot incident, nuclear weapons experts voiced concerns about training problems and declining experience levels among personnel who maintain those weapons. They report that many experienced officers and senior NCOs have left the nuclear weapons career field in recent years, due to poor assignment choices, and limited prospects for promotion. Only one nuclear weapons technician was elevated to Chief Master Sergeant--the service's highest enlisted rank--during the most recent promotion cycle.
In fairness, we should note that most of the "Dull Swords" reported in recent years have been relatively minor events, often relating to equipment failures, or individual discrepancies under the PRP regulations. Additionally, reporting requirements for Dull Sword events changes from time-to-time. The recent increase in recorded incidents may reflect revisions in the reporting process.
The Air Force's nuclear security program will face scrutiny on Capitol Hill today, during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing. We outlined the hearing agenda last week. Most of today's testimony will be provided behind closed doors.
While the Military Times article may prompt additional questions from the Senate panel, it's worth noting that the FAS request covered only a single Air Force command. Other Air Force commands have nuclear missions as well, as do units in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
At this juncture, the Senators should ask if "Dull Sword" reporting in the other services is following the ACC trend. If the answer to that query is yes, it would only reaffirm the larger training and experience issues that are affecting our nuclear forces. And fixing those problems will require more than issuing an updated regulation, or mandating greater commander involvement in base-level nuclear issues.