Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be briefed tomorrow on the Air Force’s investigation into the accidental transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana on 29 August. According to the Washington Post, Mr. Gates will receive an update on the service’s six-week investigation into the security breach, and plans to punish personnel deemed culpable in the incident.
The Post is reporting that at least five Air Force officers will be relieved of command in connection with the incident, and several enlisted members will receive letters of reprimand. Sources familiar with the investigation tell the Post that officers will be relieved at both bases involved in the incident, Minot AFB, North Dakota and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. A Colonel commanding one of wings is likely to be the highest-ranking officer relieved of his post, the official said.
Sources tell the Post that the Air Force is also considering filing criminal charges against one or more individuals involved in the incident. However, a final decision on who might be charged has not been made. An Air Force official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the most likely charges would be dereliction of duty, or willful disobedience of an order.
The expected personnel actions and disciplinary measures would be the most severe ever imposed by the Air Force in connection with a nuclear weapons incident. One of the officials who spoke with the paper said the service intends to send the message that it is “getting back to the roots of accountability,” following a series of highly-publicized incidents and scandals that resulted in minimal punishment for those involved.
In discussing the nuclear incident, one official observed that the Air Force is “determined to do better” than its handling of the 1994 shoot down of two Army Blackhawk helicopters by F-15 fighters over northern Iraq. That incident resulted in the deaths of 26 U.S. and Allied military personnel, but the two pilots received only non-judicial punishment.
The only officer court-martialed in connection with the Blackhawk incident, Capt Jim Wang, was a controller on an AWACS aircraft that was directing the F-15s. Wang was acquitted, largely because the court martial panel felt that he was being made a scapegoat. A number of Air Force officers were later punished administratively by then-Air Force Chief of Staff General Ron Fogelman, who discovered that some involved in the incident had been submitted for awards and plum assignments.
More recently, the Air Force has also been tarred by a pair of sex scandals involving general officers. Major General Thomas Fiscus, the service’s senior legal officer, was accused of a string of inappropriate relationships with female subordinates, and sexual harassment charges were brought against Brigadier General Richard Hassan who ran the Air Force’s Senior Leader Management Office. Both Fiscus and Hassan were allowed to retire at a lower grade, raising accusations of lenient treatment for general officers accused of misconduct.
So far, no Air Force generals have been implicated in the Minot incident, although one source told the Post that an announcement on administrative and punitive moves could be delayed, if the service decides that disciplinary actions need to go higher up the chain of command.
In our estimation, that scenario seems unlikely. The August incident involved the inadvertent movement of six nuclear warheads on missiles being retired from the inventory of the 5th Bomb Wing, based at Minot. The commander of that unit is a Colonel (O-6), as is the commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale, which “received” the B-52 carrying the missiles. Given that “operational chain,” it’s hard to see how a general officer might be charged with misconduct, unless they were aware of improper actions related to the missile transfer and retirement effort, or tried to “cover up” the incident.
Tomorrow’s Air Force report is expected to be delivered by Major General Douglas Raaberg, the Director of Operations for Air Combat Command, which controls the bomb wings at Minot and Barksdale. Raaberg, a veteran B-1 and B-2 pilot, was appointed to lead the investigation shortly after the incident. Sources at Langley AFB, VA (where Raaberg is stationed) say the general has worked exclusively on the nuclear incident since it occurred, an indication of the importance attached to the accident and the Air Force investigation.
The inadvertent transfer prompted transmission of a “Bent Spear” message to Secretary Gates and President Bush, signifying a significant nuclear incident that did not involve the detonation of a device, the jettisoning or a weapon, or creation of a public hazard. The Minot-to-Barksdale flight was the first by a nuclear-armed aircraft (without required authorization) in more than 40 years.
Making matters worse, the presence of nuclear weapons on the missiles was missed by munitions technicians at Minot who routinely handle the devices. Then, the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles sat on the B-52 at Minot (without the required level of security) for 25 hours, before the bomber departed for Barksdale. After that, it would take ground crews another nine hours to discover the error. All told, the six warheads were officially “missing” for 36 hours.
It will be interesting to learn how the report delivered to Mr. Gates addresses the “institutional factors” that played a role in the mishap. A recent Washington Post article outlined some of those concerns, including reorganization of the Air Force’s Nuclear or N-Staff, which tracks nuclear weapons maintenance and security. The article also raises concern about declining standards in nuclear-capable units, as reflected in a string of failures during nuclear surety inspections in 2003. One of the units that failed that year was Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing; Barksdale received an unsatisfactory rating in 2005, although both units received passing grades during more recent inspections.
Beyond the issues of training, security and evaluation, there’s the legitimate question of who’s handling our nuclear weapons. As we’ve detailed in previous posts, there are serious concerns about the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which certifies aircrews, missileers, maintenance personnel, security specialists (and others) to work with nuclear weapons. Under the present PRP system, commanders have the final say on who is certified, with wide latitude to “waiver” medical, financial and conduct problems that would otherwise prevent certification.
From our perspective, efforts to fix the problems associated with the August transfer must include a hard look at PRP and how it’s being administered. By some accounts, commanders were cutting corners with PRP standards a decade ago, certifying personnel who should have never been authorized to work with nuclear weapons. That alone didn’t cause the Minot mishap, but it’s evidence of increasingly lax standards in an area that requires rigid–and uncompromising–enforcement.
Preventing similar incidents in the future dictates an overhaul of PRP, but it’s unclear if the Air Force has the stomach for that sort of reform. After all, making PRP work requires everyone–supervisors, commanders, the medics and the personnel system–to do their jobs, and risk the manning and production problems that could arise by refusing to certify marginal personnel, or decertifying those that don’t meet standards. That’s the “other” accountability issue that the Air Force must address in correcting problems that led to those “missing” nukes.
Lest we forget, DoD has also commissioned a second, independent inquiry into the weapons incident, led by retired Air Force General Larry Welch. So far, there’s been no word on when General Welch’s panel will conclude its investigation and release their findings.