Thursday, January 08, 2009

Still Broken

The Defense Science Board (DSB) has confirmed what many already knew: the Air Force nuclear inspection program remains broken, despite extensive reviews and recent reforms.

As Michael Hoffman of Air Force Times reports:

The board — organized under the Office of the Secretary of Defense — picked apart the Air Force’s nuclear inspection architecture, faulting it for not alerting leaders to the service’s nuclear erosion and recommended the Defense Threat Reduction Agency be empowered to revitalize the Air Force’s nuclear inspection process.

Meanwhile, DSB members, who have extensive nuclear backgrounds in the Air Force and Navy, found few faults with the Navy’s nuclear inspection process.

Board members questioned the credibility of Air Force nuclear inspections after service inspectors passed five nuclear units in 2007 and 2008 even after inspections done by the DTRA, who inspected those same units at the same time, had failed them.

The numbers tell the story. Over a 19-month period (September 2007-April 2008), USAF inspectors passed 20 of 21 units undergoing a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) Limited NSIs or Defense NSIs. But only 16 of of the units received passing grades from the DTRA.

Case in point? The 91st Missile Wing, located at Minot AFB, North Dakota. The unit was in danger of failing its NSI in early 2007, after DTRA inspectors found security problems within the unit. But Air Force evaluators disagreed with the finding, and gave the wing a passing score. DSB members were puzzled over the high "pass" rate from Air Force inspectors, in a period that followed the service's worst nuclear mishap in more than 20 years.

During that now-famous incident, six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly flown from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on a B-52 bomber. The mistake was not discovered until hours after the aircraft landed at the Louisiana base.

To fix the inspection process, the DSB has recommended that DTRA be given oversight over USAF inspectors, and shorten the time between evaluations from the agency. Currently, agency personnel visit units with Air Force inspectors every five years. While DTRA inspectors conduct their own evaluation--and issue a separate report--the final pass/fail determination rests with the Air Force.

As Mr. Hoffman writes, the DSB wants the agency to focus on the USAF's inspectors, and shorten the interval between DTRA visits:

The DSB is recommending DTRA inspectors have the authority to instead inspect the Air Force inspectors rather than the units and issue a report to the Air Force inspection team’s command, the Air Force service chief, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.

A recommendation was also made to cut in half the time between Nuclear Operational Readiness Inspections in Air Combat Command and Operational Readiness Inspections in Air Force Space Command from every 36 months to every 18 months.

Since NSIs are also held every 18 months, the DSB also recommended the NORIs/ORIs be held at the same time, according to the report.

Reports from the DSB carry a great deal of weight in the Pentagon, so it seems likely that their recommendations will be integrated into the USAF's revised inspection system. But the report is also a reminder that the service's nuclear inspection process remains broken--and fixing it will take more time and oversight from outside agencies.

In the interim, the Air Force might consider some sort of exchange program with the Navy. As the DSB observed, the Navy has an inspection process that's virtually error-free. Obviously, there are some differences between the two services (in terms of nuclear operations), but there is a a good deal of commonality as well. Borrowing from the Navy would be another way to get the Air Force inspection program back on track.

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