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.
“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.
The January task force report stated that one of the problems for the Air Force’s nuclear weapons mission is that troops do not clearly understand the deterrence mission of the expensive and extremely powerful strategic weapons.
Unlike the Air Force, which has numerous problems with its nuclear mission, the Navy has sustained its commitment to nuclear forces but still is “fraying at the edges,” the report said.
The task force “did not find in the Navy the kind of deterioration in morale that characterized Air Force nuclear units,” the report said.
“The attitude in the Air Force was: ‘We know that the president and secretary of defense don´t give a damn about what we do,’ ” the report stated.
By contrast, a Navy ballistic missile submarine crew told task force investigators that while senior Navy leaders are disinterested in the strategic nuclear deterrence forces, the ballistic missile submariners remain highly motivated.
“The attitude in the Navy was: ‘We know that the president and secretary of defense don´t care - but we do,’ ” the report stated.
However, the final report also contained the conclusion that the problem of “the lack of interest in and attention to the nuclear mission and nuclear deterrence … go well beyond the Air Force.”
“This lack of interest and attention have been widespread throughout DoD and contributed to the decline of attention in the Air Force,” the final report stated.
The report called for creating the position of assistant secretary of defense for nuclear deterrence, which would elevate nuclear issues that have been separated and downgraded as the result of a Pentagon reorganization during the Bush administration.