Mislabeled Weapons Raise Risk of Accidental Explosions in South Korea

Airmen from the 51st Security Forces Squadron secure the wing headquarters building during a training exercise at Osan Air Base, South Korea. Airmen from the 51st Security Forces Squadron secure the wing headquarters building during a training exercise at Osan Air Base, South Korea. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sara Csurilla

Air Force munitions crews working with the South Korean military need to improve the way they label the weights of munitions on the peninsula, both to prevent accidental explosions and to conserve storage space, a watchdog found.

In a redacted report formerly classified as secret, the Defense Department inspector general said 7th Air Force managers of the decades-old weapons storage program “did not accurately post and report authorized net explosive weight limits, or address outstanding maintenance deficiencies at Gwang Ju, Osan, Suwon, Daegu, and Kunsan air bases. As a result, the Air Force accepted the higher risks resulting from operations outside of safety standards,” said the report, dated June 26 and released “proactively” by the IG in expectation of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Its release coincides with heightened tensions among the United States, South Korea and North Korea because of North Korea’s provocative testing of long-range missiles and the Trump administration’s mulling of options for countering the North Korean dictator.

IG auditors visited 105 of 452 munitions storage facilities containing U.S. weaponry stored at locations run by the South Korean Air Force. They include “earth-covered magazines, segregated magazines, multi-cubed buildings, barricaded open storage, [and] flight line holding areas,” the report said. The South Korean owners of the facilities are entitled to inspect the sites under a memorandum of understanding.

Each munition, according to guidelines from the Defense Department’s Explosives Safety Board, is assigned a net explosive weight expressed in pounds of explosive material, and each storage facility is designed and situated to stay with capacity limits.

Under the program’s Combat Ammunition System, the net explosive weight of each munition is reported on placards beside the weapons to allow enforcement of storage limits. The computer system sends an error message if users attempt to store more munitions than a facility is designed for. “However, users were able to override that error message, without management review and approval,” the IG found. “Air Force guidance did not require management oversight, review, and approval of [the ammunition system] overrides.”

Air Force personnel told auditors that “installation commands and 7th Air Force civil engineering placed a low priority on fixing maintenance deficiencies at munitions facilities that they anticipated would close in the future.” (Several are slated to close by 2025.)

Overall, auditors identified 120 maintenance deficiencies out of the 2,532 facility conditions tested, most relating to “doors, lighting, ventilation, lightning protection systems and breaker boxes.”

Last August, the assistant Air Force secretary for installations, environment, and energy ordered a staff plan to obtain the South Korean government’s concurrence on explosive safety risks, and to evaluate the Air Force’s implementation of recommendations related to explosive safety exemptions from an older report to determine whether new action is needed. As of March 2017, the acting secretary had not approved such a plan, the report noted.

The IG recommended that the director of headquarters of Air Force logistics, engineering, and force protection develop guidance that requires installation munitions personnel to verify, correct and update placards and system data during annual inspections.

Air Force officials agreed.

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