Truth is Stranger than Fiction - update

The US Air Force has reacted decisively to the serious failures that allowed the unscheduled flight of six nuclear weapons. Its response has been swift, thorough and multi-faceted. Yet, for all its openness, it still has questions to answer as to the deeper causes of the episode.

The US Air Force has reacted decisively to the serious failures that allowed the unscheduled flight of six nuclear weapons. Its response has been swift, thorough and multi-faceted. Yet, for all its openness, it still has questions to answer as to the deeper causes of the episode.

As expected, the US Air Force has reacted decisively to the serious failures that allowed the unscheduled flight of six nuclear weapons from Minot Air Force Base (AFB) on 30 August.  At a recent Pentagon press briefing Michael Wynne, the Secretary of the Air Force, and Major General Richard Newton, a senior USAF commander, gave an update on the investigation to the incident.  The Secretary’s involvement was noticeable for two things: his repeated use of the term ‘our’ and his departure from the press conference before General Newton took the stage.  Mr Wynne’s seeming willingness to associate himself with the incident was refreshing but his language indicated that he shared, not took, responsibility for the episode.  This is a justifiable stance at this stage and should be maintained unless subsequent investigation reveals that the failures of 29-30 August were due to inherent problems within the Service under his control.  That said, it was perhaps strange that the Secretary’s involvement in the press conference did not extend to riding out the public explanation that followed and he left it to the General to give an account of what went wrong and to face the consequent media inquisition. 

General Newton gave a frank outline of the failures that led to the unauthorized flight of six nuclear weapons between Minot AFB, North Dakota, and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, but his performance in the subsequent Q&A session was much more guarded.  The General attributed the incident to the following mistakes:

- A significant failure in nuclear weapon storage procedures.  This situation set the context for the errors of 29-30 August.  Because the required in-storage scheduling, preparation and tracking of a weapons pylon carrying six nuclear missiles was not properly conducted, the scene was set for the consequent exposure of poor standards and lax procedures. 
- On 29 August, the missiles were not correctly released from storage.  The airmen responsible for the preparation and despatch of missiles did not complete the necessary examinations.  This error was compounded by a hasty (and unfinished) acceptance of the pylons by those responsible for transporting the missiles from the weapon storage area to the aircraft flight-line.       
- A supervisory procedure in the base munitions control centre was not followed.  This masked the earlier mistakes and the nuclear weapons remained undetected on a B-52 overnight.
- On 30 August, the aircrew member responsible for the pre-flight inspection of the weapon pylons did not examine the pylon on the left-hand side of the aircraft and the erroneous weapons were not checked.  This meant the crew subsequently flew the 2 hour 43 minute sortie to Barksdale AFB without knowing they had nuclear weapons on board.

As with most serious aircraft incidents or accidents, this episode comprised a chain of events/errors where had a single link of the chain been broken the incident would have been avoided (i.e. the missiles would not have been flown).  Unfortunately, opportunities to redress unprofessional behaviour and faulty practices were missed, the chain was unbroken and the USAF was left to face an embarrassment of huge proportions.  However, its response has been swift, thorough and multi-faceted:

- The Air Force conducted a Force-wide inventory check to confirm that there were no other discrepancies in its nuclear arsenal;
- Air Combat Command (ACC) established a formal investigation into the incident;
- Secretary Wynne instigated inspections of nuclear-capable units with external oversight;
- The airborne ferrying of nuclear missiles has been suspended;
- The unit involved (5th Bomb Wing at Minot) has been decertified, which limits the missions the Wing is allowed to conduct;
- Stand-down days have been imposed across the USAF to allow units to take-stock and revise/address relevant procedures;
- The Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff have issued messages to all personnel emphasizing the need for discipline, attention to detail and responsibility;
- A Force-wide ‘Blue Ribbon’ review of fundamental policies and procedures is underway, which also includes non-Air Force participation;
- Steps have been taken to enable disciplinary action against personnel through courts martial, which reflects the seriousness of the incident.

Reflecting the gravity of the situation, castigation has been swift.  Three senior officers at the rank of colonel have been relieved of command and an unspecified number of other officers and enlisted personnel have faced administrative action, including the loss of professional qualifications.  The process of identifying accountability continues and further disciplinary measures are therefore possible.  The USAF is understandably keen to be seen to be taking action commensurate with the seriousness of the episode. However, for all its openness with respect to what when wrong on 29-30 August, it has been less transparent as to the potential causes of the repeated failures in nuclear procedures.  When pressed in the Q&A session to explain why the failures he outlined had come to pass General Newton was at times evasive.  He did concede that there had been ‘an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards…’ and a ‘lack of attention to detail…of professionalism…of rigour…of application’, but these statements read more like symptoms than causes.  There was a hint of an underlying cause when the General focused on a lack of supervision and leadership and this would naturally link to the dismissal of the three colonels.  However, the slack and informal regime that characterized the munitions organization at Minot presumably neither appeared overnight, nor was limited to one or two senior individuals. for in such a hierarchical organization supervisory responsibility is delegated not only to officers but also to non-commissioned officers.  Ultimate responsibility for the actions of a unit rest with its commander who should set the tone of its approach to work and establish the professional standards within it, but through rank and supervisory structures this obligation is shared as authority is delegated down the supervision and command chains.  In the absence of a dramatic rejection by local commanders of Air Force and Department of Defence rules for the handling and control of nuclear weapons, the problems that facilitated the failure at Minot seemingly ran slow and deep.  Consequently, the USAF leadership will be very keen to establish whether the incident at the end of August manifested a local problem or a wider malady that has yet to emerge elsewhere in the Service.  In the Cold War period the potential employment of nuclear weapons ensured that every aspect of their in-service existence was characterized by tight security, punctilious procedures and the highest standards of professional knowledge and diligence.  Although these characteristics should always accompany ownership of nuclear weapons, it is perhaps inevitable that the passing of Cold War training and operational regimes would erode the context within which the US nuclear arsenal sits.  In simple terms it is easier to be blasé about nuclear missiles when they are being decommissioned from service than when they might be used in a matter of days. 

Perhaps the mistakes at Minot illustrate the difficulty of maintaining meticulous performance in a shifting context; perhaps they are a local aberration in an otherwise laudable air force, but until an investigation identifies the underlying cause(s) behind the lack of professionalism that led to such a dramatic collapse in standards, Air Force chiefs should remain concerned.  For example, what is the reason for the acknowledged lack of leadership and supervision?  Is it due to particular individuals or to a wider inadequacy in USAF training, monitoring and assessment regimes?  Is it the result of operational overstretch or the consequence of an exodus of good leaders from the Service?  The USAF is determined to prevent any reoccurrence of the humiliating events of 29-30 August and its (ongoing) response has been swift and thorough.  It is aggressively seeking to identify accountability, it is not averse to disciplinary action and it will punish culpability.  In public statements it has shouldered responsibility and sought to reassure the nation that it will meet its obligations as a nuclear force.  The press conference at the Pentagon was a useful insight into the aftermath of the Minot incident but it left questions unanswered (e.g. why was a colonel at Barksdale AFB relieved of command?).  Most importantly it was unable to explain the fundamental reason(s) for an episode that has tarnished a nuclear reputation established by the Strategic Air Command over 50 years ago.  In due course, a further press conference is necessary to answer such questions and to rebuild that reputation.

Paul Smyth, Head of Aerospace Programme, RUSI

See 'Truth is stranger than fiction' 14 September 2007


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