Monday, December 15, 2008

Another Failed Inspection?

The Danger Room is reporting that another Air Force unit has apparently flunked its nuclear surety inspection (NSI). Sources tell the blog's editor, Noah Shachtman, that the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming will receive a failing grade on the evaluation, which is still in progress. Insiders report that problem's with the wing's Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) prompted the failing grade.

A press release posted on the installation's official web site reports that the inspection will run through Wednesday. The two-week evaluation (which began) on 2 December, evaluates unit capabilities in 12 areas related to nuclear weapons handling, operations and security. But, given the gravity of the nuclear mission, an unsatisfactory grade in any area results in a failure for the entire inspection. Deficient areas are then reevaluated, typically two months after the original inspection.

The personnel reliability program represents a key element of any NSI, ensuring that individuals meet physical, psychological, medical and financial criteria for working with nuclear weapons. While PRP is "owned" by unit commanders, it is based on inputs from a variety of base agencies, ranging from the medical group to security forces.

PRP issues were also a key factor in a recent, failing grade for the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Air Force Times reported last month that the missile unit flunked two of the twelve inspection areas during its NSI, resulting in an unsatisfactory rating for the evaluation as a whole.

Despite the failing score, the Air Force did not make any leadership changes at Malmstrom. The 341st's parent organization, Air Force Space Command, announced that the wing commander, Colonel Michael Fortney, would retain his job, as would his group commanders. According to a media release, Space Command decided the "right leadership team" was in place to make required changes at the Montana base.

A similar event occurred at Minot's 5th Bomb Wing, which flunked its NSI in May. That event came only five months after the unit failed its preliminary nuclear inspection, and less than a year after the now-infamous "weapons transfer," which prompted a wholesale review (and revision) of USAF nuclear policies.

During the transfer incident, Minot crews mistakenly shipped nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52 bound for Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. The 5th Wing eventually regained its nuclear mission certification, although four senior officers--including the unit commander--were fired after the original mishap.

But the "new" Wing Commander, Colonel Joel Westa, was not relieved after the failed NSI in May. The unit subsequently passed its make-up evaluation, and has regained its nuclear mission certification. The decision to retain Colonel Westa and his counterpart at Malmstrom suggests that some wing commanders will be allowed to keep their jobs after a failed NSI, provided the deficiencies don't indicate reveal deficiencies among key leaders.

The number of Air Force units that have failed NSIs this year remains unknown, and (in some cases) it depends on how "failure" is defined. In January, Minot's "other" nuclear-capble unit, the 91st Missile Wing, received unsatisfactory marks from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which participates in joint nuclear inspections. But, because the Space Command Inspector General team disagreed with the finding, the missile unit did not technically "fail" the evaluation.

It is also unclear if the 2nd Bomb Wing passed its nuclear surety inspection. In mid-November, the Barksdale-based unit was the first subjected to a no-notice evaluation, standard policy under the Air Force's new inspection system, but the results have never been released. While there's no requirement for the service to reveal the results, various units have publicized their NSI performances in the past.

And, in light of the recent mishaps at Minot and Hill AFB, Utah (where ICBM components were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan), critics have urged more transparency in nuclear operations and evaluations. So far, that request has been largely ignored by the service.

With at least four failed NSIs so far this year, the USAF's struggling nuclear enterprise doesn't exactly inspire confidence. All the more reason for increased disclosure of inspection results, so the public (and Congress) have some idea of how the Air Force reform program is progressing. The current policy of "selective release" is anything but helpful, since it's often used to highlight successful inspections, while hiding failures.

ADDENDUM: Recent evaluation results seem to support something we've advocated for a long time--a complete review (and overhaul) of the Personnel Reliability Program. With commanders making the ultimate decision of who's cleared for PRP--and who isn't--mistakes inevitably occur. One legendary Chief Master Sergeant--a man with years of PRP experience--estimated that 25-30% of the people in the program have no business with PRP certification. We can only wonder if those types of problems caused the PRP failures at Malmstrom and F.E. Warren. In any event, PRP is overdue for a long, hard scrub.


HSNormal said...

Taking your CMSergeant's figures as truth, this means a unit needs to plan on about 135% overmanning of PRP billets to assure 100% capability to perform tasks requiring PRP-certified personnel. Clearly this is the crux of the problem - having sufficient bodies on hand to allow temporary decerts for medical, performance, financial, etc reasons without compromising the ability to perform the mission.

Some amount of overmanning will be a hard sell in today's fiscal environment, but that's probably the key to success.

Ed Rasimus said...

As someone with a lot of time hanging on a boom, let me first note that a contract for three aircraft (that's what you've cited as precedent for USN/USMC contract tanking) isn't very convincing with regard to capability. Let us also note that the deep blue forces tend to use tankers for top off to balance cycle time for carrier ops and as emergency fuel for delays caused by a fouled deck. USAF tanker ops tend to employ big offloads and require operating close to the political border with hostile regions. I've had brothers in blue come a long way beyond their prescribed limits to pick up guys in distress--I'm not sure contract types would do that, nor would their equipment be as dependable.

Finally, you will excuse me for bristling a bit at the comment that USAF screwed up the acquisition process. While Darlene Druyun certainly put a taint on the process, the more recent brouhaha was strictly a political follies with congress-critters falling all over themselves in pandering to the lobbyists of Boeing and Northrop. It wasn't USAF's issue when it fell through.