A string of debacles in handling nuclear weapons is forcing a major overhaul of Air Force operations.

Joe Sutter was on the treadmill at a fitness center near his home in Knoxville, Tenn., when a television news report so startled him that he nearly flew off the machine. It was early September 2007 when cable news outlets reported that days earlier, an Air Force B-52 crew unknowingly had flown nuclear bombs across the country. To Sutter, a former nuclear missile wing commander who retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1997, the news was literally unbelievable. So strict are the procedures surrounding the handling of nuclear weapons that such an extraordinary mistake could have occurred only after failures at multiple levels in various organizations.

"I won't tell you what went through my mind because you couldn't print it," he says. Sutter, now chairman of the board of the Air Force Association, began fielding phone calls from former colleagues who wondered what was going on.

"Sometimes the first reports are wrong. You don't always panic right away," he says.

The first reports weren't wrong. While Air Force policy is to neither confirm nor deny reports involving nuclear weapons, then-Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne made what he called a "one-time exception" to that policy weeks later when he confirmed reports that airmen unwittingly had transported six nuclear missiles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Aug. 30, during what was to have been a routine transfer of unarmed cruise missiles for eventual elimination under international treaties. "We would not be this upset with ourselves nor be striving to restore confidence if this did not involve nuclear weapons," Wynne said at the time.

A Way Forward

The incident sparked a series of internal and external investigations that revealed widespread erosion of nuclear expertise, discipline and capability across the service. Six months after the Minot- Barksdale incident was reported, the Pentagon discovered that military officials mistakenly shipped intercontinental ballistic missile nose-cone fuse assemblies to Taiwan in 2006 (Taiwan hadn't asked for the sensitive nuclear components; it had instead ordered helicopter batteries). Defense Secretary Robert Gates immediately appointed Navy Adm. Kirkland Donald to investigate the erroneous shipment. Donald, director of naval propulsion, holds the senior military position dedicated to nuclear safety. While his report remains classified, it prompted Gates to take the unprecedented step of firing Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Michael "Buzz" Moseley in June.

Gates attributed the chain of failures in both events to an erosion of performance standards, poor leadership and oversight, the lack of a critical self-assessment culture within the Air Force nuclear program and a weak inspection program.

"The focus of the Air Force leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission," Gates said. For men and women like Sutter, who came of age during the Cold War and devoted their professional lives to the highly valued and uniquely potent world of nuclear deterrence, that erosion has been deeply disturbing. "It certainly didn't meet the zero-defects standards that those of us who grew up in this business knew," Sutter says of the Minot-Barksdale incident. It was the first time in 40 years nuclear warheads are known to have been transported on a bomber, following a 1968 prohibition of the practice.

"There's no way to minimize this," says Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston, who is assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, a newly created position. "This was extraordinary in every way."

Alston has the unenviable task of righting the listing ship of nuclear stewardship in the Air Force. The day the B-52 air crew flew the nuclear warheads across the country, Alston was closing on a new house in the Washington suburbs where he was about to become director of space and nuclear operations at Air Force headquarters. He learned about the incident his first day on the job.

The service's initial investigation, which remains classified, found an erosion of weapons-handling standards at both Minot and Barksdale, said Maj. Gen. Richard Newton, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, during a briefing for reporters weeks after the incident. Newton outlined five steps airmen in various organizations failed to follow for handling nuclear weapons, but he said the breaches represented an "isolated incident."

But an unclassified report by the Defense Science Board in February 2008 concluded that problems ran much deeper. Among other things, the review found significant confusion among Air Force personnel about the delegation of responsibility and authority for movement of nuclear weapons.

After the Defense Science Board reported its findings, Air Force leaders removed Alston's space duties so he could devote himself entirely to improving nuclear capability within the service. In June, after Moseley and Wynne were ousted, he was tapped by then-acting secretary Michael Donley (since confirmed) to lead a task force in developing a roadmap to restoring accountability and credibility to the nuclear mission.

The resulting report, "Reinvigorating the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise," was published in late October and adopts many of the recommendations called for in previous investigations into the Minot-Barksdale incident and the Taiwan shipment. The report, endorsed by the Air Force, will be the basis for a wide-ranging overhaul of its organization, training and education programs, career paths, inventory controls, maintenance operations, and acquisition policies.

Brig. Gen. Everett Thomas, commander of the Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, N.M., will shoulder responsibility for implementing many of the recommendations related to nuclear sustainment-all the functions that play into maintaining, storing, tracking and managing nuclear material.

"Balancing short-term needs with long-term planning" is the most significant challenge, Thomas said in an e-mail response to questions from Government Executive, adding that the service would have to work with outside experts as it recruits and trains new personnel. The Air Force plans to add more than 300 positions, predominately civilian, to the 3,400 now involved in nuclear sustainment activities. "Training the new personnel as well as the existing workforce on the updated policies and procedures is one of the center's highest priorities," he said.

Those updated policies and procedures will center on a system of "positive inventory control" to centrally track all nuclear weapons and related materiel by national stock numbers. "Historically, the Air Force had limited tracking of assets by serial number in the supply system," and over time different systems were used, Thomas said. "Under the new system, every asset will be affixed with some form of electronic tagging and will be tracked throughout its entire life cycle."

The Air Force also is creating a category of sensitive assets not specifically designated as nuclear-related materiel-things that are integral to nuclear weapons delivery systems, such as ICBM guidance sections and aircraft code-enabling switches. This sensitive materiel also will be tracked under the positive inventory control system, Thomas said.

The 526th Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Systems Group at Hill Air Force Base in Utah was to begin storing and tracking serial-tagged assets in January at a new warehouse built for the purpose. "Positive inventory control will allow for [the unit] to identify and account for the condition and location of all nuclear-related materiel anywhere in the supply chain, to include installed assets, at any point in time," Thomas said.

A New Command

As Alston was developing his roadmap, James Schlesinger, former secretary of Defense, was leading a task force of former Pentagon luminaries in an examination of nuclear management problems both within the Air Force and across the department. In September 2008, the Schlesinger task force released a report highly critical of the Air Force and called upon the service to create a major command focused solely on nuclear deterrence and operations. After some internal wrangling, Air Force leaders ultimately agreed. The resulting Global Strike Command will comprise all nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers (currently part of Air Combat Command) as well as the service's intercontinental ballistic missiles (currently part of Space Command). In late December 2008, Air Force leaders tapped Brig. Gen. James Kowalski, then deputy director for global operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former bomber pilot, to lead the provisional command-a precursor organization to the permanent one. Kowalski's job is to figure out the staffing and resources Global Strike Command will need and where the command should be located when it is made permanent at the end of the year.

Retired Gen. Michael P.C. Carns, a former Air Force vice chief of staff and a member of the Schlesinger task force, says creating a command dedicated to nuclear matters "is absolutely the right way to go." He credits Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Donley for making it happen. "I'm positive they received a lot of pushback [from within the service]. But they said, 'This is where we're going. Get on the train,' " says Carns. "I think we're going to see dramatic turnaround within a year. That is due to leadership."

Alston's roadmap painstakingly catalogs the failures in the nuclear mission, identifies root causes and describes the action plan for dealing with them through more than 100 recommendations now being implemented. "I believe we understand where our weaknesses are. We can debate how to fix them perhaps. But I feel confident we understand where the challenges are," he says.

Sutter says the plan offers the Air Force a solid approach to restoring credibility in the nuclear mission. "Certainly the Air Force had a lot of 'help'-I'd put that in quotes-in looking at some of the issues and problems we've had," he says. "Collectively, I think the recommendations that have been put together forge a way ahead that I think makes good sense."

Root Causes

In many ways, the Air Force's problems stem from a decision in 1992 to dissolve the Strategic Air Command, the organization responsible for ICBMs, bombers, strategic reconnaissance systems and the tanker force. Strategic Air Command was established in 1946 in response to the growing nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union following World War II. It actually predates the Air Force (which was not established as an independent military service until 1947), and the culture of deterrence embodied in SAC reigned supreme in the Air Force for more than four decades.

But by the early 1990s, with the Cold War over and bomber forces more focused on conventional combat operations, Air Force leaders sought and received approval from the Joint Staff to abolish SAC. They felt that the former SAC forces could be employed more efficiently if they were dispersed among other organizations. Bomber aircraft were moved into Air Combat Command; ICBM operations were moved to the organization that became Space Command; and tankers were moved into the newly established Air Mobility Command.

On the face of it, these changes made organizational sense. But as the Defense Science Board report noted, "The end result is that the strategic nuclear mission was dispersed among three major commands, none of which had strategic nuclear forces or operations as a central focus or body of expertise."

Eventually, the focus on nuclear missions dissipated, observers say, culminating in the lax attitudes and standards that led to the Minot-Barksdale incident and the shipment to Taiwan.

The Schlesinger task force found that each of the commands that absorbed elements of the former Strategic Air Command had other priorities, and those priorities took precedence in the Air Force budget. "As a result, the nuclear mission has been underfunded, and this has resulted in the shrinkage of billets for units and even those shrunken billets remain unfilled in many cases," Schlesinger says. "There is a shortage of security personnel. There is a shortage of maintenance people. There is a shortage of those who supervise the nuclear establishment, and there has been a very noticeable lack of nuclear expertise."

It will be up to Alston, Kowalski, Thomas and others to marshal the will of Air Force leaders to turn those trends around. "We have the right focus in the field right now," Alston says. "I feel very good about our daily performance. The roadmap is all about trying to ensure that our performance in the field is underpinned with the right resources, processes and governance that are required to sustain and ensure excellence."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec