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“Nuclear Surety Inspections (NSI) are extremely detailed and demand the absolute highest standards of compliance and accountability [to pass],” Miss Thibault said.

The Air Force defines nuclear-surety inspections as reviews of all nuclear-weapons-related material, people and procedures that “contribute to the security, safety, and reliability of nuclear weapons and to the assurance that there will be no nuclear-weapon accidents, incidents, unauthorized weapon detonations, or degradation in performance at the target.”

Last year, the tests were made more rigorous, Miss Thibault said, following the critical report by the task force on nuclear weapons.

“These inspections are tools that our commanders use to determine the readiness of their units to perform the mission to the standard we demand - perfection,” she said. “We’re seeing progress in ICBM nuclear surety.”

As for the test failures, “unsatisfactory inspection results, in the sense of identifying discrepancies, are part of the fix and should not be interpreted as suggesting that the ultimate security or safety of the American people or our allies has been put at risk,” Miss Thibault said.

The Defense Department task force report issued in October warned that the Air Force was not doing its job of securing and maintaining nuclear-missile forces. The report identified a “serious erosion of senior-level attention, focus, expertise, mission readiness, resources, and discipline in the nuclear weapons mission.”

The Air Force responded by initiating 100 steps to improve nuclear-weapons problems.

Data from the report show that the Air Force failed on five of its 22 surety inspections in 2008. It was the fourth time since 1992 that at least five failing grades were issued, the report stated.

According to the report and the Air Force, the five inspections failures during 2008 included the three at the missile wings and two at strategic nuclear bomber wings.

By contrast, in 2006 and 2007, there were a total of 18 surety inspections, and all received passing grades.

“Over the past 10 years, inspection pass rates point to anomalies that indicate a systemic problem in the inspection regime,” the report said. “Something is clearly wrong.”

A second task force report, made public Jan. 9, stated that rigorous nuclear surety inspections are “critical to maintaining a credible U.S. deterrent.”

“However, the task force believes a significant shortfall exists in the DoD nuclear surety inspection process,” the report said.

Mr. Schlesinger, who headed the task force, stated in the October report that the Air Force in recent years focused too much on conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. “Both inattention and conscious budget decisions have led to the atrophy of the Air Force´s nuclear mission,” he stated. “But the balance must be restored. Though reduced in scope, the nuclear mission remains essential.”

The U.S. nuclear arsenal is still needed despite the demise of the Cold War for deterring nuclear threats to the United States and its allies, he said. The weapons must be maintained as a credible deterrent against nuclear powers such as China and Russia that are in the process of building up their nuclear forces, Mr. Schlesinger said.

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