Another nuclear flub by US Air Force raises doubts
By Robert Burns, APWASHINGTON -- Another embarrassing stumble by the U.S. nuclear missile force, this time a safety and security inspection failure, is raising questions about the Air Force's management of arguably the military's most sensitive mission.
August 15, 2013, 11:20 am TWN
The head of nuclear air forces, Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski, revealed to The Associated Press on Tuesday that the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, had failed what the military calls a “surety” inspection — a formal check on the unit's adherence to rules ensuring the safety, security and control of its nuclear weapons.
The 341st is one of three units that operate the Air Force's 450 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said a team of “relatively low-ranking” airmen failed one exercise as part of a broader inspection, which began last week and ended Tuesday. He said that for security reasons he could not be specific about the team or the exercise, although he said the team did not include missile launch crew members.
“This unit fumbled on this exercise,” Kowalski said by telephone from his headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, adding that this did not call into question the safety or control of nuclear weapons at Malmstrom.
“The team did not demonstrate the right procedures,” he said, and as a result was rated a failure.
To elaborate “could reveal a potential vulnerability” in the force, Kowalski said.
In a written statement on its website, Kowalski's command said there had been “tactical-level errors” in the snap exercise, revealing “discrepancies.”
Without more details it is difficult to reliably judge the extent and severity of the problem uncovered at Malmstrom.
On Capitol Hill, a spokesman for Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said McKeon believes that “two troubling inspections in a row at two different missile wings is unacceptable.”
“It is his sense that the Air Force must refocus on the nuclear mission,” spokesman John Noonan said. “The Air Force should hold failed leadership at the group and wing level accountable, recommit itself from the top down to the nuclear deterrent mission, and ensure a daily focus on its centrality to our nation's security.”
In response to word of the failed inspection, the press secretary for the Pentagon, George Little, said the bottom line for nuclear forces hasn't changed: “Our nuclear forces remain fully capable and ready.”
“While the fact that the unit made errors during this exercise is disappointing, this type of exercise is designed to push people to their limits and learn how to improve,” Little said.
Asked whether the Air Force intends to take disciplinary action against anyone for the inspection failure, Kowalski said the Air Force is “looking into it.” Overall, the 341st wing “did well,” he said, earning ratings of excellent or outstanding in the majority of the 13 areas in which it was graded by inspectors. Those areas include management, administration, safety, security, emergency exercises, worker reliability and other facets of a mission that relies on teams of officers and enlisted personnel.