Air Force Unit's Nuclear Weapons Security Is 'Unacceptable'

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008

The same Air Force unit at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota that was responsible for mishandling six nuclear cruise missiles last August failed key parts of a nuclear safety inspection this past weekend, according to a Defense Department report.

The 5th Bomb Wing was given an "unacceptable" grade in security of nuclear weapons, according to the review by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. In another category, management and administration, it received a grade of "marginal," based on deficiencies in recording changes that affected the operational status of nuclear cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

Those are two areas where failures last summer allowed a B-52 at Minot to be loaded with six air-launched cruise missiles and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana without the pilots, air or ground crews knowing they contained nuclear warheads.

Among the problems found during last week's inspection: Internal security forces did not go to assigned defensive areas during an exercise that involved an attempt to steal a nuclear weapon; security guards failed to search an emergency vehicle that entered and left the nuclear storage area during that exercise; a security guard used his cellphone to play video games while on duty; and guards were unarmed at traffic control points along the route where nuclear weapons were to travel.

While 5th Bomb Wing units received passing grades in the remaining eight categories, agency inspectors concluded that security forces' lack of knowledge of their duties represented "a lack of supervision" and a "lack of training," according to the report.

The test failure was first reported yesterday by Air Force Times.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, who has seen the report, said yesterday that "this certainly requires a closer look than we have so far, because these are serious issues."

Maj. Thomas Crosson, spokesman for Air Combat Command, which supervises the 5th Bomb Wing, said yesterday that he would neither confirm nor deny the contents of the defense agency's report. He said they would not be released.

"There are areas identified as needing improvement," Crosson said. He said 5th Bomb Wing units will be reinspected in 90 days by the command's inspector general. In the interim, however, he said the wing will not lose its certification to handle nuclear weapons.

Col. Joel Westa, who took over the wing after last summer's incident, had warned his subordinates that the inspection would be tough. On Thursday, in a commentary on the Minot Air Force Base Web site, he praised two units of the wing that received good grades but made no mention of the poor ones.

After investigations that followed the August incident, the 5th Bomb Wing lost its certification, and personnel at every Air Force base with nuclear weapons had to go through retraining. Five officers, including the 5th Bomb Wing commander, lost their jobs along with some noncommissioned officers.

The Minot unit was recertified two months ago, after increased training and several practice runs.

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