Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Back in the Barrel

The 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota is under the microscope again.

Inspectors from Air Combat Command (ACC) and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), U.S. Strategic Command and the Air Force Safety Center returned to the base on Sunday, for the unit's latest nuclear surety inspection.

The return visit was prompted by a failing grade during a previous evaluation, held in late May. That inspection revealed serious problems with nuclear surety issues, raising concerns about the wing's ability to safeguard its deadliest weaponry.

In a formal report issued after the May visit, DTRA inspectors cited five major security violations and six lesser discrepancies, resulting in a failing grade for the 5th Bomb Wing. Security was one of ten areas evaluated by ACC and DTRA. While the unit earned passing marks in nine categories, the security deviations resulted in an overall failure for the inspection.

Problems uncovered during the May evaluation included individual failures as well as procedural errors. In one particularly embarrassing incident, inspectors watched a sentry play games on a cell phone during a critical event. Another airman, working as a close boundary sentry protecting nuclear weapons, confessed that she was unaware of her duties and responsibilities.

Evaluators also noted that a security team failed to respond effectively during a simulated attack on the nuclear weapons storage area (WSA), leaving part of the facility without required fire support. The situation was further compounded by a team chief's inability to assume control of the situation.

Most of the security problems were blamed on Minot's 5th Security Forces Squadron, which is charged with protecting the base, its B-52 bombers and the nuclear storage complex. The commander of the security squadron, Lieutenant Colonel John Worley, was fired after the May inspection. He has since been reassigned to the Air Force Security Forces Training Center at Lackland AFB, Texas.

DTRA inspectors blamed Worley and other senior members of the security forces squadron for a "lack of adequate supervision," leading to the discrepancies uncovered during the May inspection. The lead inspector for the agency, Navy Captain A.J. Camp, Jr., noted that post visits by senior personnel were infrequent, and of limited duration, contributing to the security woes.

The 5th Security Forces Squadron received a new leader after the May debacle. The newly-assigned commander, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Weaver, will lead the unit through the make-up evaluation.

Minot's latest inspection comes almost a year after its nuclear woes began. Last August, a 5th Bomb Wing crew mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52 bound for Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. The error was not detected until hours after the bomber arrived at the Louisiana base, prompting a series of high-level notifications that included Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Bush.

In the wake of the transfer incident, the Air Force fired the Commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, along with the leaders of the Maintenance Group and Minot's Munitions Maintenance Squadron. Additionally, the 2nd Operations Group Commander at Barksdale lost his job, along with the leader of that installation's active duty B-52 unit.

The incident prompted a temporary lifting of Minot's nuclear mission certification, and a long struggle to regain it. Members of the 5th BW earned a "Not Ready" grade on their Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI) last December, prompting a second evaluation four months later. While the unit passed that test--and regained its nuclear certification--failing marks during subsequent NSI prompted another visit from inspectors, which began three days ago.

Results of the latest evaluation are expected by early next week. In preparation for the NSI, the 5th BW has been holding "robust" exercises two times a week, according to a base spokeswoman.

As the latest inspection neared, the 5th BW Commander, Colonel Joel Westa, had a simple message for his airmen and the evaluations teams. "We're ready," he said.

While the bomb wing has been under intense scrutiny for the past year, another Minot unit has also suffered a series of nuclear incidents. Last winter, the 91st Missile Wing, responsible for ICBM operations at the base, earned a failing grade for security from the DTRA during its nuclear surety inspection. However, the unit still passed the evaluation, because other teams disagreed with the DTRA finding.

More recently, missile launch officers assigned to the wing have been disciplined for falling asleep with a nuclear code device in their possession. And less than two weeks ago, a transporter moving a missile booster to a launch silo slid into a ditch, prompting another investigation.

Repercussions from the nuclear incidents at Minot have been felt far beyond the North Dakota base. Over the past year, the Air Force has conducted a series of inquiries and commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to recommend fixes for its nuclear enterprise.

While many of those recommendations have been implemented, the pace of reform--and continuing nuclear woes at Minot and other bases--resulted in the dismissal of the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff in June.

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