Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More NSI Failures

by Nate Hale

For the second time in as many months, an Air Force unit has flunked its Nuclear Surety Inspection.

The latest failure occurred at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, home of the 90th Missile Wing. The ICBM unit will be out briefed on inspection results on Wednesday morning, two weeks after the evaluation began. While the Air Force has refused comments on the NSI, sources indicate that the missile wing failed at least one--and possibly as many as three--inspection areas.

Air Force Times reported Wednesday afternoon that the 90th Wing received failing grades because of problems within its maintenance group. Sources told the paper that technicians did not properly document required missile inspections and in some cases, left the procedures completely undocumented.

The discrepancy resulted in an unsatisfactory score for the maintenance complex, which drove the failing mark for the overall inspection. A nuclear surety inspection evaluates 12 separate areas, covering a unit's ability to maintain, handle, operate and protect nuclear weapons. The 90th Maintenance Group received its unsatisfactory score during the early phases of the inspection, an official told the Times.

Still, the problems at F.E. Warren may extend beyond the maintenance unit. Another Air Force official tells In From the Cold that the 90th Wing also received failing grades for its Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which determines who can work with nuclear weapons, and for its security function.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that "PRP was definitely a failure," but offered little explanation for the problem. Yet, as the source observed, PRP is a detailed program, involving multiple base agencies. "If you dig hard or deep enough, you can find something," the official observed.

But another source suggested that the PRP problems were more than technicalities, or record-keeping problems. The source, who is also familiar with the Warren inspection, claims that PRP problems at the base are more complicated "than what is being reported." He said that the wing's medical group is having as many, if not more problems, than the units. In nuclear capable units, the med group ensures that personnel meet physical and psychological requirements for working with nukes.

If that account is accurate, then the 90th Missile Wing would be the second ICBM unit to fail an NSI (in part) because of PRP issues. Last month, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana received an unsatisfactory rating on its nuclear surety inspection, the result of PRP and maintenance discrepancies. Similar problems at F.E. Warren suggest that these problems may be widespread within missile units.

The official who spoke with this blog expressed greater concern over a reported security incident at Warren. According to the official, a security forces team failed to meet required response times for an evaluation-related drill. "With time lines and standards built into everything you do in nuclear security," the source observed, "anytime a team does not meet timing standards, it's a cause for concern."

In cases where timed responses cause security failures, the official observed, the problem is usually one of prioritization. Evaluators typically initiate multiple scenarios, he reported, forcing security teams to respond in the right sequence. "If you respond correctly, you meet all your time lines," he said. "If you don't, time lines get broken."

The inspection at F.E. Warren marks the second time this year that security issues have created problems during an NSI. In May, multiple security discrepancies caused the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot to fail its nuclear surety inspection. The commander of Minot's 5th Security Forces Squadron was fired after the evaluation. Minot earned a passing grade on a make-up inspection, conducted a few months later.

The failed inspection at the Wyoming base is at least the fourth involving an Air Force nuclear unit so far this year. In addition to the missile wings at F.E. Warren, Malmstrom and the bomber unit at Minot, the 91st Missile Wing--also located at the North Dakota base--received a failing grade on its Janaury NSI from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

Still, the 91st is not counted as a failed evaluation by the Air Force, since the DTRA finding was overruled by inspectors from Air Force Space Command, the missile wing's parent organization.

Evaluation teams also visited the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana last month, but results of that inspection have never been disclosed. The Barksdale eval was the first conducted under the new, "no notice" criteria, recently established for nuclear units. While the inspection was noted on the base's official website, the article does not reveal how the unit fared.

That missing detail in the press release has raised speculation that the 2nd Bomb Wing also failed its NSI. However, those claims have not been substantiated. If confirmed, a failure at Barksdale would be the fifth involving an Air Force unit so far this year.

Spokesmen at F.E. Warren and Barksdale did not respond to requests for comment.

Air Force Times reports that a total of 22 NSIs have been conducted this year, with five failures. That disclosure also suggests that the 2nd Bomb Wing may have been among the units that flunked their nuclear inspections. There were no reported failures in 2006 and 2007.

Last year's nuclear incident at Minot prompted an exhaustive review of procedures and policies, including inspection criteria. During that highly-publicized mishap, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were inadvertently shipped from the North Dakota base to Barksdale. The fallout led to multiple investigations and review panels, which recommended sweeping changes within the nuclear enterprise.

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