EXCLUSIVE: Air Force fails new nuclear reviews

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EXCLUSIVE:

Air Force nuclear units have failed two inspections in the past three months, providing fresh evidence that the military service that jarred the world in 2007 by mistakenly transporting live nuclear weapons across the United States continues to suffer lapses in its management of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Jennifer Thibault, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Space Command, said the failed “surety” inspections at Wyoming and Montana bases in November and December involved “administrative and paperwork issues.” In all, three Air Force nuclear-missile units and two strategic-bomber units failed such inspections in 2008.

Despite the problems, the Air Force said it is making progress addressing issues with the security and handling of nuclear-tipped missiles that came to light after two embarrassing episodes in 2006 and 2007 prompted a widespread review and management changes.

“While we missed the mark in certain areas during the last three inspections of our ICBM wings, overall, we’ve seen that our airmen are highly capable of operating, maintaining and securing our nuclear forces,” Miss Thibault told The Washington Times.

James Schlesinger, the former defense secretary who headed a recent task force on nuclear-weapons management, said Tuesday the continuing problems affect U.S. credibility worldwide - both in deterring attacks and assuring allies of protection - but he said he thinks the Air Force is committed to fixing the problems.

“Whatever the size of the nuclear force is, it has to be run with zero defects,” Mr. Schlesinger said in an interview. “We’ve got to get back to that if we want to have any credibility in the international scene.”

The most recent surety-inspection failure took place at the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming from Dec. 2 to Dec. 17. The base is in charge of 150 Minuteman III missiles that are on alert 24 hours a day.

Air Force officials said the 90th was given failing grades by inspectors from the Space Command and the Defense Technology Security Administration for not properly documenting tests on missiles, which require strict monitoring.

The Wyoming base was at the center of one of the two prior nuclear mishaps that cast embarrassment on the Air Force. Nuclear-missile units at F.E. Warren mistakenly transported four Minuteman III forward sections containing sensitive components to Taiwan on two occasions, in October and November 2006. The components were recovered, but the mistake exposed larger security shortfalls.

A subsequent security breakdown allowed live nuclear weapons to be flown improperly from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana in August 2007.

The incidents prompted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to form an eight-member Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management that produced two reports critical of the Air Force’s handling of nuclear missiles. On-site inspections were made stricter and have divulged additional problems, officials confirm.

The two other nuclear-surety-inspection failures took place last year at the 341st Missile Wing at Malstrom Air Force Base, Montana, from Oct. 26 to Nov. 10, and at the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., from Jan. 22 to Jan. 30, 2008. Both wings also handle 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman IIIs deployed in underground silos.

Miss Thibault declined to provide details of the inspection failures because of the sensitivity of the information.

Surety inspections are held every 18 months and measure whether troops are prepared to fire missiles during a two-week testing period.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

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