The Air Force has unveiled another measure aimed at preventing nuclear mishaps like the one at Minot AFB, North Dakota last year.
General Michael Moseley, the USAF Chief of Staff, announced today that B-52 bomber crews will concentrate exclusively on training for their nuclear mission for up to six months at a time. Currently, bomber crews--and fighter pilots assigned to nuclear strike units--train for nuclear and conventional missions at the same time.
According to the Associated Press, the nuclear-focused training could last for up to 12 months at a stretch, but that detail has not been decided. It was unclear if the new training program will include crews that fly the Air Force's other nuclear-capable, long-range bomber, the B-2 Spirit.
The planned change in bomber crew training was announced by Moseley at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday. He said renewed focus on nuclear training is designed to improve aircrew focus on on the "stringent safeguards built into the nuclear mission."
General Moseley said the change in B-52 training will "happen shortly," but did not provide a specific timetable for implementation. He also commented that the "nuclear only" training period could last for as long as 12 months, but that detail "has not been decided."
Fallout from the Minot incident made changes in crew training inevitable. Members of the B-52 crew were supposed to check the cruise missiles mounted on their aircraft before last summer's scheduled transfer mission between Minot and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Had the crew--specifically the radar navigator (bombardier) examined the weapons more thoroughly, he would have discovered that six of the missiles still had their nuclear warheads.
Instead, the nuclear-tipped missiles were mistakenly removed from a storage bunker and loaded onto the bomber. Not only did the weapons pass over seven states in their journey to Louisiana, they also sat on the ramp at Minot and Barksdale--with minimal security--before the flight. The nuclear warheads were eventually discovered by a maintenance crew at the Louisiana base, 30 hours after they were removed from their bunker in North Dakota.
The incident has been described as the nation's worst nuclear security breach in 20 years. Four senior Air Force officers were fired as a result of the mishap, and the Pentagon has conducted three separate probes to determine what went wrong. Changes in B-52 crew training are one result of those investigations.
Explaining the new training regimen at the Pentagon, Moseley told reporters "“We need to somehow allow the squadron commander to focus on that (nuclear mission) and that alone” instead of assuming these units can switch back and forth regularly without a loss of focus."
But the revised system will also create major challenges for unit commanders, aircrews and others involved in the training process. Historically, crew training has been based on six-month cycles, covering all aspects of a unit's mission. That allows pilots and other crew members to maintain currency in conventional and nuclear operations.
There's an old saying that you can "waiver anything" in terms of aircrew duties, but (without some changes in the rules) it's going to be tough for Buff crews to maintain their "conventional" currency while spending up to a year on the nuclear mission. We don't envy the squadron and group training managers, flight examiners and intel personnel who will spend the next few weeks scrambling to develop the revised training plan. The same holds true for the B-52 crews who will operate under the new system.
And that raises other, serious questions about the training initiative: what about fighter crews who serve in "dual-role" units? Various Air Force reports suggest that nuclear standards have slipped "across the board," so how will the service ensure that tactical nuclear units retain the same, required focus? And, with B-52s routinely deployed to Guam and the Middle East, how will the USAF balance operational commitments against the new training requirements.
Lots of folks at Minot, Barksdale, Air Combat Command and the Pentagon will be earning their paychecks in the coming weeks, trying to find practical answers for those questions.