Saturday, October 31, 2009

That Makes Two

For the second time in less than a month, an Air Force wing commander has been fired at Minot AFB, North Dakota.

Air Force Times reports that Colonel Joel Westa, Commander of the base's 5th Bomb Wing, was relieved of his post on Friday afternoon, after senior officials "lost confidence" in his ability to lead.

Westa was dismissed by Major General Floyd L. Carpenter, Commander of 8th Air Force, headquartered at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Eighth Air Force is in charge of all USAF strategic bomber units, including the B-52 wing at Minot.

Westa, a master navigator, lost of the confidence of Carpenter because of his “inability to foster a culture of excellence, a lack of focus on the strategic mission … and substandard performance during several nuclear surety inspections (NSIs), including the newly activated 69th Bomb Squadron,” according to a statement issued by 8th Air Force.

“Perfection is the standard,” Carpenter said in the statement. “We will continue to demand exacting focus, attention to detail, discipline and dedication to the highest principles and standards for all activities surrounding the nuclear enterprise.”

Westa's firing came just two weeks after the Commander of Minot's 91st Missile Wing, Colonel Christopher Ayers, was dismissed from his post for similar reasons. A spokesman for Air Force Space Command said Ayers' superiors also "lost faith in his ability to command," citing a series of accidents, incidents of misconduct, and a failed nuclear surety inspection during his tenure. The commanders of the wing's maintenance group and missile maintenance squadron were also fired.

Ayers has since been reassigned to the Headquarters of Air Force Space Command, the parent organization for the Air Force's ICBM mission. Space Command is preparing to transfer its missile assets to Global Strike Command, which will oversee both ICBM and nuclear-capable bomber units.

Westa's next assignment has not been determined. Contacted at his home by Air Force Times, he declined comment. Colonel Westa has been replaced at Minot by Colonel Douglas Cox, who previously served as Vice Commander of the 36th Wing at Andersen AB, Guam.

There is no shortage of irony in the circumstances surrounding Westa's departure. It comes almost two years to the day after he arrived at Minot, replacing Colonel Bruce Eming, who was also fired. Emig's dismissal was the result of a highly-publicized incident involving the inadvertent "transfer" of nuclear weapons from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

During that mishap, crews at Minot failed to ensure that nuclear warheads had been removed from cruise missiles, being flown to Barksdale for inactivation. The crew of a Barksdale B-52 (serving as the transfer aircraft) also failed to detect the mistake, which wasn't discovered until hours after the giant bomber landed in Louisiana.

The incident prompted a series of Air Force and Defense Department investigations, which resulted in disciplinary action for dozens of personnel and revised standards for handling, protecting and maintaining nuclear weapons.

Fixing the problems at Minot fell on the shoulders of Colonel Westa, who was Vice Commander of the Andersen wing before being transferred to North Dakota. Shortly after taking the reigns of the 5th Bomb Wing, Westa announced ambitious plans for re-certifying the unit, which had lost its authority to conduct nuclear operations after the transfer debacle. At the time, Colonel Westa confidently predicted that the B-52 wing would regain its nuclear certification by "February 2008."

Almost immediately, that timetable hit a major snag. In mid-December 2007, the 5th Wing underwent an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI), in preparation for the NSI that would follow. When the preliminary evaluation ended, both Westa and Minot's Chief of Public Affairs, Major Laurie Arellano, announced that the unit would be "given more time" to get ready for the nuclear surety inspection.

While the Air Force refused to divulge the reason for the extension, sources told In From the Cold the 5th Bomb Wing had received a grade of "Not Ready" on its INSI. While technically not considered a failing mark, the INSI results suggested continuing problems in the nuclear unit, and indicated the wing was not ready for the NSI.

With additional preparation time, the B-52 wing passed its INSI in March of last year. But two months later, it received a failing grade during an NSI from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which assists the Air Force in conducting nuclear evaluations. Inspectors from the agency found numerous security discrepancies during the May 2008 evaluation, including sentries who were playing games on their cell phones during the simulated movement of nuclear weapons.

While the 5th Wing earned passing grades in other areas, the security problems were enough to generate a failing score for the overall inspection. That resulted in the dismissal of Lieutenant Colonel John Worley, Commander of Minot's 5th Security Forces Squadron, the unit charged with protecting the base and nuclear assets within its perimeter. Air Force sources told this blog that Worley continued training for a local marathon in the months leading up to the inspection, despite the focus on Minot and its nuclear problems.

The 5th Bomb Wing finally passed all portions of its NSI in August 2008, almost a year after the original "transfer" incident. But problems continued to plague the Minot bomber unit and the co-located missile wing.

For the 91st, there were two major mishaps involving vehicles used to transport nuclear missiles and components. The most recent accident occurred in August, when the driver of a component truck lost control, causing the vehicle to roll onto its side. An Air Force investigation revealed that the driver was trying to remove "a large insect" from his neck at the time of the incident.

Additionally, the 91st failed a nuclear surety inspection during Ayers' tenure as commander, and three officers were disciplined for falling asleep with nuclear launch codes in their possession. In a separate incident, an airman failed to secure a safe containing missile operations procedures. Officials found nothing was missing from the safe.

Still, the cumulative effect of the various incidents caused Air Force Space Command to lose confidence in Ayers, who was fired as the missile wing commander on 14 October.

Colonel Westa also ran into problems after helping the 5th Bomb Wing regain its nuclear certification and pass required inspections. As part of its revised "nuclear roadmap," the Air Force added a second B-52 squadron to Westa's wing, in an effort to provide "operational depth."

The new unit, the 69th Bomb Squadron, was activated less than two months ago, but senior officers were reportedly unhappy with efforts to bring the unit to full operational status. Air Force Times also reported the squadron had difficulties during its first nuclear evaluation, another factor in Westa's dismissal.

Some observers view the firings of Ayers, Westa (and others) as the imposition of badly-needed accountability in the Air Force's nuclear enterprise. But others argue that the new inspections are "almost impossible to pass," given years of inattention to the service's nuclear weapons systems and the personnel who operate and maintain them. Without more money (and training), they warn, the string of recent failures is likely to continue.

Air Force leaders, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have promised to provide the required resources. But meeting that commitment may prove difficult, if not impossible. The Obama Administration is planning massive cuts in the nation's nuclear stockpile. Against that backdrop, the Pentagon may be hard-pressed to furnish the training and acquisition funds needed to rebuild our nuclear arsenal.

Making matters worse, there is also a severe shortage of trained personnel to operate and repair nuclear systems. That problem is the result of several factors, ranging from the "merger" of the conventional and nuclear munitions career fields, to the employment of nuclear specialists in other tasks, including guarding prisoners in Iraq.

Obviously, the only effective cure for the "experience" problem is time--and lots of training. Until that happens, missile and bomb wing commanders will be sweating their NSIs, knowing that much of their workforce is still green.

Best of luck to Colonel Cox and Colonel Fred Stoss, the new commander of the 91st. They'll need it.


TOF said...

Maybe the firings should be coming a bit futher up the chain of command.

sykes.1 said...

The extent of the top to bottom rot in the Air Force is dismaying.

Could it be that Air Force personnel (Generals to Privates) no longer believe that service has any actual mission? That what they do each day is an elaborate farce?

Setting aside Iran and North Korea, nuclear war is unlikely, and the role of the Air Force today in Iraq and Afghanistan is minimal at best. Assuming maintenance people can keep it in the air, will the F22 ever have a role? Will there ever be another manned bomber or fighter?

Once this kind of rot sets in, it is virtually impossible to cure it. Viz. GM and Chrysler. It is widely expected in financial circles that Chrysler will finally disappear sometime next year, and GM might not be far behind. Is is necessary to shut down the Air Force and reassign its equipment, facilities to some other department? The Army perhaps?

Ed Rasimus said...

That story is a very full plate. It smacks of the culture of fear in SAC from the days of LeMay. It causes me to recall the politically motivated hatchet-jobs of inspection teams that I experience over the years (most notable being the "failed" ORI at Korat a month after the end of Linebacker II when the double-wing had had been operating 24 hours/day at surge pace with seven different types of aircraft).

It is manifestation of the social engineering aspects of the current military which not only emphasizes mission, but also expects that "self-esteem" and "affirmative action" will be applied with mandatory goals which might be counter-productive to the basic role.

I wonder what happened to the internal Stan/Eval and inspector functions of the wing, where the nuclear command/control safeguards went, who chose the leadership that could fail in such a manner, etc.

As for sykes.1, consider how you "set aside Iran and N. Korea". That's like setting aside Germany and Japan in WW II or the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.

Also consider that the entire purpose of an F-22 is to insure that it doesn't have a combat role. It is exactly parallel to the B-52 nuclear mission, the entire nuclear deterrent force and the SSBM fleet.

Unless you've got a technological crystal ball you're quite premature in ruling out 'another manned bomber or fighter'.

Unknown said...


You raise some very valid points. I've been as critical as anyone regarding the failures in the Air Force's nuclear enterprise (see my three-part series on the Minot debacle back in Jan 08). But, it's hard to expect perfection from a system that was ignored--and under-funded--for years.

True, the LeMay era of SAC was built, in part, on a climate of fear. But SAC never skimped on training, or lacked the money for the nuclear mission. Mid-level and senior managers knew their jobs and newcomers caught on fast, or found themselves in another command.

Unfortunately, with the end of the Cold War (and the demise of SAC), the nuclear enterprise became a secondary consideration for the USAF. Officers and NCOs who once spent their careers as "SAC-trained killers" found themselves avoiding assignments in the strategic nuclear business, or getting out of those units as quickly as possible. Experience and expertise, once the hallmarks of SAC, began to erode, leading to incidents like the one at Minot.

And, as you observe, the Air Force's reacts predictably by doubling down on the inspection process and lopping off the heads of a few O-6s. Obviously, there's no margin for error in the nuclear business and NSIs should be the toughest inspections that any unit ever faces.

But it's unrealistic to expect "instant perfection" from an enterprise that was under-resourced and largely ignored for almost 20 years. You can keep firing every wing king at Minot for the next five years, but until the Air Force rebuilds experience levels in the nuke business, a lot of units will keep flunking their NSIs.

And for what it's worth, I don't see things getting better anytime soon. With Obama planning massive cuts in our nuclear stockpile, it will be hard to justify increased funding for nuclear systems, personnel and related training programs.

Finally, I also agree with TOF's observation about holding the higher-ups accountable. How many failures at Minot and Barksdale does the 8 AF/CC get before he is sent packing?

fmfnavydoc said...

Spook - you took the words out of my mouth. Why isn't someone looking at how 8th AF/CC is doing business? It just seems to me that this is a corporate climate that has affected not just the AF, but all of the services to varying degrees. When commands do business in a half-@$$ed manner, it's usually due to questionable leadership at all levels of the chain-of-command.