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Reports: Air Force worst in dealing with nukes

Jan. 9, 2009 - 03:30PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 9, 2009 - 03:30PM  |  
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The Air Force isn't the military's only organization to lose focus on nuclear weapons and nuclear inspections, but it is the worst offender, according to two reports by Defense Department nuclear task forces.

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The Air Force isn't the military's only organization to lose focus on nuclear weapons and nuclear inspections, but it is the worst offender, according to two reports by Defense Department nuclear task forces.

The Defense Department's Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management, led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, issued the second part of its report on the military's nuclear mission Jan 8. The first part, issued in September, focused squarely on the Air Force and criticized the service's oversight of its nuclear mission.

The follow-up report says the Navy and other joint agencies with nuclear responsibilities let the nuclear mission slide after the end of the Cold War, as the Air Force did, but not to the same extreme. However, the slip in performance of the other services exacerbated the Air Force's problems, the latest report says.

"The lack of interest in and attention to the nuclear mission ... goes 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," according to the report.

The latest report makes 82 recommendations to nuclear agencies across the Defense Department, including creating the position of assistant secretary of defense for deterrence in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

The report's first part picked apart the Air Force's nuclear leadership, architecture and inspections, and made 33 recommendations to correct the Air Force's nuclear enterprise.

On Thursday, the task force commended the Air Force for swift action on 30 of those items — action that included the standup of Global Strike Command in the largest Air Force reorganization since Strategic Air Command was disbanded in the early 1990s.

many of the same contributing factors that led to the Air Force's downfall were found inside joint program offices and the Navy's nuclear submarine force, the task force said in its report.

"The Task Force detected some of the same forces at work as were discerned in the case of the Air Force: loss of attention and focus, downgrading, dilution, and dispersal of officers and personnel," Schlesinger wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

However, the report says, those problems did not go as far as the ones they found in the Air Force.

"The Navy has maintained its commitment to the nuclear mission, although there is evidence of some ‘fraying around the edges,'." according to the report.

The Schlesinger task force praised the Navy's nuclear inspections of its submarine force, saying that "inspection results indicated standardized oversight by the inspection regime." From 1992 to 2008, the Navy's submarine force's passing rate for Nuclear Weapons Technical Inspections never dipped below 85 percent, the report says.

Meanwhile, the Air Force's inspection pass rate fell to 50 percent in 2003 and was only 83 percent over the past 10 years, according to the first part of Schlesinger's team's report.

The Air Force did not respond by press time to requests for comment.

DSB faults Air Force inspectors

In another recent report, The Defense Science Board's Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety joined the parade criticizing the Air Force's handling of nuclear weapons.

The board picked apart the Air Force's nuclear inspection architecture, faulting it for not alerting leaders to the service's nuclear erosion, and recommended the Defense Threat Reduction Agency be empowered to revitalize the Air Force's nuclear inspection process.

Meanwhile, DSB members, who have extensive nuclear backgrounds in the Air Force and Navy, found few faults with the Navy's nuclear inspection process.

Board members questioned the credibility of Air Force nuclear inspections after service inspectors passed five nuclear units in 2007 and 2008 that failed parallel DTRA inspections. However, service inspector ratings supercede DTRA ratings.

Air Force inspectors passed 20 out of 21 nuclear units that had Nuclear Surety Inspections, Limited NSIs or Defense NSIs from September 2007 to April 2008, the report says. The fact that so many units passed the year after airmen mistakenly flew six nuclear-tipped weapons from North Dakota to Louisiana puzzled DSB members.

"The Task Force found significant continuing confusion and questionable practices in bomber units weeks after the unauthorized movement incident," the report says. This helped lead to the DSB recommendation that DTRA have oversight over Air Force inspectors.

Currently, DTRA inspectors visit units with Air Force inspectors every five years. They do their own inspections, but only the service inspectors have the power to pass or fail a unit.

The DSB is recommending DTRA inspectors have the authority to oversee the Air Force inspectors and issue a report to the Air Force inspection team's command, the Air Force service chief, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

DTRA always has had the role of monitoring nuclear inspections in both the Air Force and Navy, but this would give it much more authority, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

"The big message I get from this is the Defense Science Board doesn't trust the Air Force with nuclear inspections," Kristensen said.

A recommendation was made to cut in half, to 18 months, the time between Nuclear Operational Readiness Inspections in Air Combat Command and Operational Readiness Inspections in Air Force Space Command.

Since NSIs are also held every 18 months, the DSB also recommended the NORIs/ORIs be held at the same time.

The DSB report comes after the Air Force announced a host of changes to its nuclear inspection architecture and process in the Air Force Nuclear Road Map, issued in October. One change was the elimination of scheduled nuclear surety inspections. Instead, inspectors will show up to nuclear units unannounced.

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