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5th Bomb Wing flunks nuclear inspection

By Michael Hoffman - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Jun 2, 2008 18:13:28 EDT

The 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., has failed its much-anticipated defense nuclear surety inspection, according to a Defense Threat Reduction Agency report.

DTRA inspectors gave the wing an “unsatisfactory” grade Sunday after uncovering many crucial mistakes during the weeklong inspection, which began May 17. They attributed the errors primarily to lack of supervision and leadership among security forces.

Inspectors from Air Combat Command also participated, but the Air Force refused to provide specifics on their findings.

Security broke down on multiple levels during simulated attacks across the base, including against nuclear weapons storage areas, according to the DTRA report, a copy of which was obtained by Air Force Times.

Inspectors watched as a security forces airman played video games on his cell phone while standing guard at a “restricted area perimeter,” the DTRA report said. Meanwhile, another airman nearby was “unaware of her duties and responsibilities” during the exercise.

The lapses are baffling, given the high-level focus on Minot since last August, when 5th Bomb Wing airmen mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto a B-52 Stratofortress and flew them to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., where the plane sat on the flight line, unattended, for hours. That incident not only embarrassed the Air Force, but raised concerns worldwide about the deterioration in U.S. nuclear safety standards.

Col. Joel Westa took command of the 5th Bomb Wing following that fiasco. After it failed an initial nuclear surety inspection, or dry run, in December, Westa acknowledged this inspection was going to be the “most scrutinized inspection in the history of time.”

Even so, airmen were unprepared.

“Overall their assessment painted a picture of some things we need to work on in the areas of training and discipline,” Westa said in a statement.

His airmen are working diligently to correct deficiencies, he said.

Inspectors from Air Combat Command will now return to Minot in August to determine if the necessary improvements have been made. Eventually, the wing will have to pass a full defense nuclear surety inspection.

Although the wing failed, it will keep its certification to handle nuclear weapons and will carry on with training right up to the day ACC inspectors revisit the base, said Maj. Thomas Crosson, a command spokesman. The base lost its certification immediately after the incident last August and didn’t have it restored until March 31, after it passed a second dry run.

The wing will participate in both a Red Flag exercise this summer and a nuclear readiness operation exercise as it prepares for the inspectors’ next visit, Crosson said.

DTRA inspectors gave the wing passing grades in nine of 10 areas they examined, including safety and technical operations, but failed it for its nuclear security.

“The most serious failure is the one regarding security, which is exactly what the Minot incident was all about,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Litany of failure

The DRTA report highlighted an incredible number of gaffes:

* An internal security response team didn’t respond to its “pre-designated defensive fighting position” during an attack on the weapon storage area, leaving an entire side of the maintenance facility vulnerable to enemy fire.

* Security forces didn’t clear a building upon entering it, which allowed inspectors to “kill” three of those four airmen.

* Security forces failed to use the correct entry codes, issued that week, to allow certain personnel into restricted areas.

* Security forces airmen failed to properly check an emergency vehicle for unauthorized personnel when it arrived at a weapons storage area, or search it correctly once it left.

* While wing airmen simulated loading an aircraft with nuclear weapons, security forces airmen failed to investigate vulnerabilities on the route from the storage area to the flight line, and didn’t arm three SF airmen posted at traffic control points along that route.

* While on the aircraft, one flight of security forces airmen didn’t understand key nuclear surety terminology, including the “two-person concept” — the security mechanism that requires two people to arm a nuclear weapon in case the codes fall into the hands of an airman gone bad.

“Security forces’ level of knowledge, understanding of assigned duties, and response to unusual situations reflected a lack of adequate supervision,” wrote the DTRA team chief.

Security forces leaders rarely visited their airmen on post, and routine exercises “were neither robust nor taken to their logical conclusion,” according to the report.

After reviewing base records, inspectors found “leaders were unengaged [in] the proper supervision of SF airmen.”

“If the leadership is still unengaged after all that has happened with the warheads, the missing ballistic missile fuses and problems with the first inspection, then they’re not fit to have this mission,” Kristensen said. “It’s really frightening.”

Security forces errors made up the majority of the 14-page DTRA inspection report, but inspectors found fault with other parts of operations, including late status reports and major errors in the wing’s personnel reliability program, which dictates who can handle nukes.

While reviewing records, inspectors found one individual cleared to handle nukes had been “diagnosed for alcohol abuse” but was allowed to keep his certification, according to the report.

More fallout?

Immediately after the loss of control over the six nuclear warheads last August, the former 5th Bomb Wing commander was fired, along with three other high-ranking officers. Sixty-nine airmen temporarily lost their certification to handle nukes.

Crosson said there are no plans to fire any “key personnel” now. He did not rule out punitive actions for other airmen, however.

This latest setback comes shortly after Air Force officials announced plans to form a new B-52 squadron at Minot, which will allow one bomber squadron to focus solely on the nuclear mission. The move is largely in response to the findings of a blue ribbon panel, which told Congress the bomber force had lost sight of the nuclear mission due to the heavy demands of supporting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Several of the senior [Defense Department] people interviewed believe that the decline in focus has been more pronounced than realized and too extreme to be acceptable,” according to a report written by a Defense Science Board task force headed by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, a former chief of staff.

Considering the level of resources dedicated to ensuring the 5th Bomb Wing could meet standards — including the arrival of new senior noncommissioned officers from other bases — Kristensen said he worries about nuclear security not only at Minot but across the service.

“It makes you wonder what’s going on elsewhere, like the nuclear weapons stationed at bases overseas, and at Barksdale Air Force Base and Whiteman Air Force Base,” he said.

ACC officials said the command will continue to support the 5th Bomb Wing’s leadership and provide the manning to fix security problems.

“We take our responsibilities to protect and safeguard weapons with the utmost seriousness, and understand there is zero tolerance for errors,” according to an ACC statement.

Airmen with the 5th Bomb Wing can expect more long hours ahead as the wing scrambles to fix its security holes before ACC inspectors return.

“They really need to drill their people to make sure this can’t happen,” Kristensen said.

It’s not the first time airmen at Minot have heard such warnings.

DISCUSS: What is up at Minot?


* Minot bomb wing recertified for nukes

* Minot nuke handlers not ready

* Westa takes reigns at 5th Bomb Wing

* Commander disciplined for nuclear mistake

* B-52 flies mistakenly with nukes aboard



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