Report: Air Force unit fails nuclear security inspection
By Michael Hoffman, Air Force Times
The same Air Force unit that mistakenly flew nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52 last summer has failed a nuclear security inspection, according to a Defense Department report.
Security broke down on multiple levels during simulated attacks across the 5th Bomb Wing's North Dakota base, including attacks against nuclear weapons storage areas, according to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency report, which was obtained by Air Force Times.
Inspectors watched as an airman played video games on his cellphone while standing guard at a "restricted area perimeter," the report said. Meanwhile, another airman nearby was "unaware of her duties and responsibilities" during the exercise.
Among the gaffes inspectors found at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.:
• An internal security response team didn't respond to its "pre-designated defensive fighting position" during an attack on the weapon storage area, leaving an entire side of the maintenance facility vulnerable to enemy fire.
• Security forces didn't clear a building upon entering it, which allowed inspectors to "kill" three of those four airmen.
• Security forces failed to use correct entry codes, issued that week, to allow personnel into restricted areas.
• While on an aircraft, some airmen didn't understand key nuclear terminology, including the "two-person concept" — the security mechanism that requires two people to arm a nuclear weapon in case the codes fall into the hands of an airman gone bad.
• Security forces didn't properly check an emergency vehicle for unauthorized personnel when it arrived at a weapons storage area or search it correctly once it left.
Inspectors, who began the week-long inspection May 17, gave the wing passing grades in nine of 10 areas, including safety and technical operations, but failed it for nuclear security. They gave the unit an "unsatisfactory" grade on Sunday, and attributed the errors primarily to a lack of supervision and leadership.
"Security forces' level of knowledge, understanding of assigned duties, and response to unusual situations reflected a lack of adequate supervision," the inspection team chief wrote.
After reviewing base records, inspectors found "leaders were unengaged (in) the proper supervision of (security forces) airmen."
In addition to security errors, inspectors found fault with other parts of operations, including a program that dictates who can handle nukes.
Inspectors found that one individual cleared to handle nukes had been "diagnosed for alcohol abuse" but was allowed to keep his certification.
The lapses come despite a high-level focus on Minot since last August, when 5th Bomb Wing airmen mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto a B-52 Stratofortress and flew them to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., where the plane sat on the flight line, unattended, for hours.
That incident not only embarrassed the Air Force but raised concerns worldwide about deterioration in U.S. nuclear safety standards.
"The most serious failure is the one regarding security, which is exactly what the (previous) Minot incident was all about," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
"If the leadership is still unengaged after all that has happened with the warheads ... and problems with the first inspection, then they're not fit to have this mission," Kristensen said. "It's really frightening."
Col. Joel Westa, who took command of the unit after the missile incident, said in a statement, "Overall their assessment painted a picture of some things we need to work on in the areas of training and discipline." Westa said his airmen are working diligently to correct deficiencies.
Although the unit failed, it will keep its certification to handle nuclear weapons. Inspectors from the Air Combat Command plan to return to Minot in August.
Immediately after the loss of control over the six nuclear warheads in August, the wing commander and three other high-ranking officers were fired. Sixty-nine airmen temporarily lost their certification to handle nukes.
Air Combat Command spokesman Maj. Thomas Crosson said there are no plans to fire any "key personnel" now. He did not rule out punitive actions for other airmen, however.