The Air Force’s troubled nuclear enterprise is in hot water–again. 

According to the Associated Press, at least two missile launch crews have been caught napping this year with the blast door open on their underground command post.  Regulations stipulate that the massive door–designed to keep terrorists and other threats from gaining access to the launch center and its nuclear codes–can remain open if both crew members are awake, but must be shut if one is asleep.

Sources tell the AP that numerous violations of the rule have occured, but so far, only two crews have been punished.  One of the crews was assigned to the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota, while the other is part of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana.  Both of those units (along with the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming) is responsible for 150 nuclear-armed Minuteman III ICBMs, dispersed in silos up to 100 miles from each installation.  Individual launch crews are responsible for 10 missiles and train for the unthinkable–unleashing nuclear armageddon, if directed by the national command authority.

The blast door violation is merely the latest black eye for USAF nuclear units.  Earlier this year, 17 missile launch officers at Minot were temporarily decertified for nuclear duty after an inspection revealed problems with their performance.  A separate evaluation led to a failing grade for the 341st Wing at Malmstrom, after discrepancies were discovered in a security forces group assigned to protect the missile fields.  The commander of that unit, Colonel David Lynch, was subsequently fired. 

And earlier this month, the Air Force relieved Major General Michael Carey, commander of 20th Air Force, the “parent” organization for the three missile wings.  An Air Force spokesman said Carey’s dismissal was related to “personal misconduct” during a temporary duty assignment and was not sexual in nature, or related to U.S. nuclear operations.

Sadly, this latest round of dismissals, failed inspections and disciplinary actions is hardly new.  We’ve been documenting problems in Air Force nuclear units for more than six years, dating back to an infamous 2007 incident where nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly transferred from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.  Warheads on the missiles (which were being retired from active service) were supposed to be removed before being flown to Barksdale, but various Air Force personnel, ranging from munitions specialists to the crew of the ferry aircraft, failed to notice that the weapons were still armed.

Since then, the service has suffered through more busted evaluations, more dismissals and more disciplinary actions, yet the problems persist.  In the interim, the Air Force has spent millions on additional training and the creation of a new organization (Global Strike Command), measures that were supposed to fix the problems and provide a new level of direction and leadership for strategic nuclear units.

But if the recent rash of problems is any indication, GSC has a way to go.  And that invites some rather obvious questions, beginning with the issue of accountability.  How much blame (if any) should be assigned to senior leadership, beginning with Lieutenant General James Kowalski, the current commander.  In a recent interview with the Associated Press, General Kowalski blamed missile blast door problem on a breakdown in discipline among a handful of crews.  That’s certainly a factor, but given the recent string of failures, it would seem that GSC’s problems go beyond a few missileers who don’t follow checklists.  Apparently, the AP didn’t ask General Kowalski how much of the blame for the Air Force’s nuclear woes fall on his shoulders, and those of his leadership team.   

Indeed, when the 91st Missile Wing experienced its latest failures, senior leadership at Minot expressed concern about “rot” within the crew force.  That’s a rather damning indictment, given the gravity of the mission assigned to missile crews, most of whom are in their early 20s and serving their first or second operational assignment.  And, when you factor in the issues that have affected Air Force bomb wings in recent years, there should be genuine concern about problems facing the service’s nuclear units and why they persist to this day.

In fairness, it should be noted that the nuclear mission is extraordinarily demanding, with no room for error.  Failure in a single area during a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) means the wing flunks the entire evaluation, as evidenced by the security problems at Malmstrom earlier this year.  Additionally, inspections are now conducted on a no-notice basis, which means nuclear units must train and prepare constantly, never knowing when the evaluators will show up at the gate.

But that doesn’t excuse the epidemic of failures, either.  The Air Force isn’t the only service entrusted with the strategic mission.  Much of the nation’s nuclear deterrent resides with the Navy’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and there have been virtually no reports of inspection failures among those units.  Similarly, there have been few failures among tactical nuclear units in all the branches of the military.  Those organizations must also meet exacting standards for nuclear security, maintenance and operations, yet their evaluation record has been much better in recent years.  Has anyone bothered to ask why the tactical nuke community has fared better, and what lessons (if any) might be adopted by Air Force strategic units?

And that brings us back to that nagging issue of accountability.  Back in the glory days of Strategic Air Command (SAC), the nation’s bomber and missile forces remained razor-sharp, a legacy of General Curtis LeMay and his insistence on the highest standards for units under his command.  But with the end of SAC more than 20 years ago (and the end of the Soviet threat), focus on the nuclear mission became blurred and standards eroded.  Nuclear duty, particularly in places like North Dakota and Wyoming, became something to be avoided, if at all possible.  With the advent of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear specialists were sometimes deployed for jobs far beyond their expertise, serving as interrogators and prison guards.  Predictably, training and readiness continued to suffer, culminating in the Barksdale debacle and subsequent failures.  Along the way, a few Colonels and scores of lower-ranking personnel lost their jobs, but flag officers generally escaped blame.

Case-in-point?  Colonel Michael Fortney presided over two failed inspections as commander of the missile wing at Malmstrom between 2008-2010.  Yet, he was still promoted to Brigader General and today serves as Director of Operations at Global Strike Command.  Some of the O-6s who lost their jobs over similar failures must be scratching their heads, along with those missileers who got hammered for various infractions in recent months.

As for General Kowalski, he has been confirmed as the next Vice Commander of US Strategic Command, which directs all of the nation’s nuclear bomber, ballistic missile submarine and land-based ICBM forces.  His predecessor, Navy Vice Admiral Timothy Giardina, was recently fired amid allegations that he used counterfeit chips while gambling at a casino in Iowa.  Giardina has been reassigned to the Navy staff in Washington (and reverts to two-star rank), but there seems little doubt that he will be allowed to retire as a flag officer.  As for Generals Fortney and Kowalski, their careers are still moving along, and some have speculated that Kowalski’s new job is a stepping stone to command of STRATCOM.

There is plenty of blame to go around for continuing problems in the Air Force nuclear community.  And those failures will likely continue, as along as accountability remains selective in nature.