Nuclear Weapons

Defense Science Board: Air Force Nuclear Management Needs Improvements

04.29.11 | 5 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen
The Defense Science Board recommends reducing the number of inspections of nuclear bomber and missile units.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Pentagon’s “independent” Defense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety has completed a review of the Air Force’s efforts to improve the safety and proficiency of its nuclear bomber and missile units. The report comes three and a half years after the notorious incident at Minot Air Base where six nuclear cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52H bomber and flown across the United States.

The report, Independent Assessment of the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise, finds progress has been made but also identifies some serious issues that still need to be fixed. Some of them are surprising.

Inspections Gone Amok

The most important finding is probably that the nuclear inspection system following Minot has gone amok and in some cases become counterproductive. The number and scope of inspections were increased in response to the incident, but now they have become so frequent and widely applied that nuclear units have neither the time nor resources to correct the deficiencies that are actually identified. Instead the inspection system needs to be limited and focused on where the problems are.

It is natural that leadership will want to demonstrate rigorous efforts to correct deficiencies after a serious incident like Minot by beefing up inspections and exercises as proof that they’re taking things seriously. But this has resulted in a continuous and across-the-board level of inspections and exercise activity that part of the Air Force leadership sees as needed “until a zero-defect culture can be reestablished.”

In reality there has probably never been a zero-defect situation and, when overdone, the high level of inspections and exercises lead to an unrealistic zero-risk mindset. In other words, the leadership needs to cultivate a realistic inspection culture that is focused on detecting and correcting defects rather than expecting to eliminate them.

Over-focus on zero-defect can create distrust in the lower ranks that the leadership doesn’t trust them to perform professionally. This is, the DSB report bluntly concludes, “creating a leadership mindset where satisfying a Nuclear Surety Inspection team, for example, can supplant, or at least compete with, focus on readiness to perform the assigned nuclear mission.”

And nuclear inspection excess combined with multiple over-laying agencies and organizations can create bizarre situations such as in the case of inspections of Munitions Support Squadrons (MUNSSs) in Europe where it is not uncommon to have 80-90 inspectors examining a unit with a total manning of less than 150 personnel.

The report recommends returning gradually to the normal 18-month inspection scheduled used before the Minot incident, and states that additional inspections should occur “only to address unsatisfactory ratings or significant negative trends.” In other words: no additional inspections unless a problem has already been detected.

For the Air Force’s nuclear deployment in Europe, the report recommends that follow‐up re‐inspections and special inspections of air bases and other nuclear units be discontinued unless unsatisfactory ratings or significant negative trends have been identified. For all other discrepancies the wing commander or the MUNSS commander should be accountable for closing out the discrepancies in communication with the appropriate inspection agency. Serious security issues were found at European bases in 2008 and evidently had still not been fixed in 2010.

The DSB report does not, however, describe in detail how or to what extent the nuclear proficiency level has evolved in the nuclear units as a result of the increased inspections and oversight established after 2007. It concludes that a culture of special attention to nuclear issues has been reestablished at the operational level, but not fully at the supporting system of the Air Force nuclear enterprise. It would have been interesting to see how that has affected the actual nuclear inspection grades of the individual units.

Resources Still Lacking

While the Air Force leadership has spoken at length about the importance of improving the nuclear proficiency and safety, the report concludes that the leadership has not yet put the money where its mouth is in terms of prioritizing budgets, upgrades of support equipment, directives and technical orders, and tailoring personnel policies to specific nuclear missions. There is still a degree of business-as-usual in planning and acquisition.

For example, the report identifies that 40-plus year munitions hoists are not being replaced, that engineering requests for reentry vehicles has skyrocketed from 100 in 2007 to 1,100 in 2010, and that repairs of nuclear Weapons Maintenance Trucks (WMTs) at bases in Europe has been delayed by missing spare parts. There are currently 150-200 U.S. nuclear bombs scattered across six bases in five European countries. The 14 WMTs are scheduled for replacement with the Secure Transportable Maintenance System (STMS) in 2014.

Reliability But No Trust

The report concludes that the Air Force’s Personal Reliability Program (PRP), intended to ensure that only qualified people are allowed access to nuclear weapons, has not improved and in some cases increasingly suffers from defects. One problem identified is a continuing escalation of the pursuit of absolute assurance of personal reliability, which the report concludes created “important dysfunctional aspects in the program” where threat of suspension and decertification has produced an environment of distrust. People that have been selected are not sufficiently trustworthy to live an acceptable daily life and must continuously reestablish their credibility. According to the report:

“Even the possibility of Potentially Disqualifying Information (PDI) leads to temporary decertification until it is established that there has been no compromise of reliability. Based on this fundamentally flawed assumption, the PRP repeatedly reexamines the history of each individual.”

“As one example of the consequences of this attitude, personnel are automatically suspended from PRP duties when referred by Air Force medical authorities to off‐base medical treatment regardless of the nature of the referral. The individual must then report to base medical authorities to be reinstated.”

Personnel issues also continue to plague the nuclear wings and MUNSS units in Europe, where the DSB report describes personnel management has created “a flow of people who have no nuclear experience into the key DCA wing in Europe” [i.e. 31st FW at Aviano] and the MUNSS sites at national bases.

As a result, the DSB report recommends that Air Force PRP-based restrictions and monitoring standards be reduced to match those required by DOD.

Command Structure Readjustment

The DBS report also recommends that the nuclear command structure that was set up after the Minot incident be readjusted to that all base-level operations and logistics functions be assigned to the strategic missile and bomb wings reporting through the numbered air forces to Air Force Global Strike Command.

One effect of this command readjustment is the transfer of all munitions squadrons responsible for nuclear mission support from Air Force Material Command to the Air Force Global Strike Command within the next 12 months, recently described by the Air Force.

Download Defense Science Board report

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.