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No More Bent Spears

—Marc V. Schanz and Suzann Chapman

February 15, 2008— The root causes of the Air Force's August 2007 Bent Spear incident have been isolated to two bases, but the problems with the nuclear force extend beyond those facilities to DOD as a whole, according to a former Air Force Chief of Staff and head of a task force investigating nuclear weapons surety. Retired Gen. Larry Welch told lawmakers earlier this week, that there has been a "dramatic reduction" DOD-wide in senior level dedicated focus on the nuclear mission.

And, he said, there is a "perception at all levels in the nuclear enterprise that the nation and its leadership do not value the nuclear mission and the people who perform that mission."

That staggering summation is at the core of Welch's Defense Science Board report, one of two reports released publicly Feb. 12, coincident with the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the August incident. The other is the Air Force's Blue Ribbon Review of Air Force nuclear weapons policies and procedures. Testifying at the hearing, in addition to Welch, who now heads the Institute for Defense Analyses, were Lt. Gen. Daniel Darnell, deputy chief of staff for air, space, and information operations, plans, and requirements; Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, the director of resource integration in the Air Staff’s logistics, installation, and mission support office, and lead on the BRR; and Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, Air Combat Command's director of air and space operations.    

According to the Welch report, the Air Force incident "can be a just-in-time rescue" to presage "lasting corrective actions." The report states that DOD has received "authoritative and credible reports of declining focus and an eroding nuclear enterprise environment for at least a decade with little in the way of effective and lasting response."

Unfortunately, Welch told the Senators, corrective actions for past deficiencies "were implemented, but they didn't endure."

Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), in describing the August Bent Spear during which a B-52 bomber inadvertently transferred cruise missiles with nuclear warheads from Minot AFB, N.D. to Barksdale AFB, La., declared, "No breach of nuclear procedures of this magnitude had ever occurred previously."

The sobering event prompted then-Air Combat Command head Gen. Ron Keys to order an immediate Commander-Directed Investigation. The tactical-level CDI focused on the facts and assigned accountability, leading to the removal of seven officers, including the wing commander at Minot and two group commanders, from their positions, and temporary decertification of about 90 personnel from working with nuclear weapons.

Raaberg, who led the CDI, told the Senators that the Air Force ultimately found that fewer than 30 of those 90 airmen had failed to follow procedures. He said that "13 were administered [Uniform Code of Military Justice] action; a total of 15 were administratively removed or affected by the incident."

Close on the heels of the CDI came the Blue Ribbon Review, directed by Gen. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, and led by Peyer. The BRR was an operational-level review that focused on the entire Air Force enterprise, covering nuclear-capable aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Concurrently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates commissioned Welch to conduct the DSB task force review of the incident and DOD’s nuclear enterprise across the services and joint organizations.

According to written testimony provided by Darnell, Raaberg, and Peyer, the root causes of the Minot-Barksdale incident were "unit-level leadership and discipline breakdown" at those two bases. They noted, too, that the CDI had cited a declining focus on the nuclear bomber mission as "a root cause."

They stated that the competition for resources, time, and attention, particularly in aircraft units with both nuclear and conventional missions—the latter taxed under 17 years of continuous combat—had eroded focus on the strategic nuclear bomber mission. The problem started, they said, with the end of the Cold War when nuclear-equipped bombers no longer stood alert.

Immediately after the August 2007 incident, the Air Force initiated a series of actions, which Darnell told the lawmakers, included stockpile verification, extra training at nuclear weapons units, and limited nuclear surety inspections overseen by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He noted that many of these and other actions are still ongoing. The Air Force is about a quarter of the way through some 124 recommendations, said Darnell.

He stated the BRR found "that the Air Force policies, processes, and procedures are sound and that the Air Force commitment to the nuclear enterprise is strong." Darnell added, though, "There are opportunities for improvement."

However, several lawmakers pressed the Air Force witnesses on one of the key elements of the service’s nuclear program: periodic inspections. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) pointed out that, all the way up until the incident, Minot had received good inspection reports. “There seems to be a disconnect between inspections and actual performance,” he said, adding, "Inspections don't provide an accurate picture of the situation."

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) opined that the picture painted of a decade-long "breakdown in culture" was not caught by the system of safeguards embodied in the service’s nuclear inspection regime.

Darnell responded that the Air Force is looking "very closely" at inspections and added, "inspection-wise, there are areas that could be tightened up."

It was at that point that Welch introduced another bombshell. He told the Senators: “Our report found that the problem with the inspections is the scope is just too limited. The operational readiness inspections—over time the scope has been more and more limited, to the point where they really don’t demonstrate operational readiness.”

As Warner noted, "That's a pretty dramatic observation, General."

And with that the hearing devolved into a planned closed-door session.

Welch had more Air Force zingers, though. The DSB report indirectly cites USAF's personnel drawdown and its work-smarter initiatives as a factor that ultimately compromised the nuclear mission at B-52 bases by establishing "processes that simplified work without adequate review and consideration of the risks."

These "expedient work processes," the report goes on, were developed over time "without adequate review and approval above the wing level."  Explaining, perhaps, this lack of attention from above wing level, the Welch report outlines the movement of the service's nuclear forces after the demise of USAF's Strategic Air Command. The ICBM force now serves under Air Force Space Command, while the bomber force serves with 8th Air Force in Air Combat Command.

Although 8th Air Force has long been known as a strategic bomber command, the report notes that it "subsequently has been assigned multiple additional non-nuclear missions, its headquarters has been significantly reduced in manning, [and] many authorized nuclear-related positions have not been filled (13 of 31 positions unfilled in the Air Force component to US Strategic Command)."

The Welch report acknowledges that the "overall nuclear force and numbers of deployed weapons have been greatly reduced," however, it cautions, "this does not translate to a reduction in complexity."

Darnell, Peyer, and Raaberg maintain in their testimony that "the nuclear enterprise in the Air Force works despite being fragmented into a number of commands."

To restore more senior oversight, the Air Force already has upgraded the head of the Air Force Nuclear General Officer Steering Group to three-star level. And, Darnell told the Senators, he will have a two-star general on his staff "that will be in charge of nuclear matters in the Air Staff" and who will report directly to Darnell. He added that nuclear matters will "be his or her sole duty."

  • On the Record


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