Remember that incident a few years ago at Minot Air Force Base, with nuclear warheads being transported by accident? Of course we do… discussed all over ACW (link, link and link).

The Air Force conducted the Commander Directed Report of Investigation, (prepared by Maj, Gen. Douglas Raaberg), looking into what happened and who was responsible. The report was not publicly available, but hey, that’s what FOIA is for. After a two year wait, and almost forgetting about it, I got a package in the mail yesterday. Cool. Somewhat redacted, but still cool.

A Series of Mistakes

First, there was a scheduling mistake. Basically, someone updated the real schedule which details the missile pylons to be transported, but that update never made it into the hands of people doing the work, who mostly use “working slides” (power point printouts? cliff notes??) rather than the official and more complicated schedule to guide their tasks. So, they moved two missile pylons listed on the old schedule, one of which was armed with nuclear warheads. This was only the first mistake. There were at least three other points at which the mix up should have been identified.

Normally, the handling team goes into the shelter where pylons are stored, and at that point does Missile Safe Status Checks, which include verifying the payload of each missile by shining a flashlight into a small window in the casing and reading the inside label. Some of the testimony referenced in the report suggests that no one was seen carrying a flashlight, which would make verifying the payload through that little window impossible.

Also, the report notes that no one seemed to notice that one pylon was marked with placards indicating its readiness for movement and the other was not. Granted, these placards are two 8.5 × 11 signs, but still—obvious difference (the report writes: “inexplicable,” “baffling”). It’s not all flashlights and signs though. The crew is monitored by the Munitions Control Center, which is supposed to verify pylons before movement using a software-tracking program that identifies nuclear vs. inert payloads. Apparently the person who was supposed to do this was simply not trained to use the program, and so didn’t.

And on and on. Payload checks are supposed to be performed by the team that opens the storage, the team that tows the pylons to the aircraft, and then the flight crew. The report details how at each step someone didn’t check. The flight crew did a spot check, but only on one of the pylons and, by chance, not the nuclear one.

Nuclear Skills

The end of the report picks up on a more general point, that because of a shifting focus to conventional weaponry, nuclear skill sets have faded:

The calculus has changed. There has been a fundamental shift over the past three years to nearly conversional-only operations. Much of it has been by design. [redacted] The Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot and the remaining Air Launched Cruise Missiles in their inventory are scheduled for further demilitarization, destruction, or departure. [redacted]

[snip]

To emphasize, the nuclear skill sets have not been exercised. They are atrophied. It was evident in the testimony of every operations group member we interviewed. When referring to the tactical ferry program they believe it is a, “Depot Maintenance input that only requires three (3) crewmembers … we’re only ferrying ‘carcasses’ from point A to point B!”

The discussion of the changes in training of the air crews is pretty interesting, but I am not sure what to make of several mentions of “touching” the nuclear weapons…

the Barksdale AFB crew that flew the Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot AFB have never physically touched a real missile… their fingers have never put an imprint on an actual advanced or air launched missile… neither the experienced instructor pilot, radar navigator or inexperienced copilot. [ellipses as in report]

[snip]

The most recent Distinguished Graduate from weapon school, the instructor pilot on ‘Doom 99’ which transported the nuclear warheads aboard her B-52, did not receive specific nuclear weapons instruction in Class 07-A. Again, she admitted she had never physically touched a nuclear weapon.

I kind of follow the professional culture or education argument being made, but it also sounds a bit like, well, you have to get to second base with a missile or something in order to really understand what you are doing.

Recommendations

The report provides detailed suggestions for each step in the process, from how to achieve better nuclear-related training for wing leaders, to better labeling of pylons, to revisions in assignments and procedures.

One recommendation suggesting that nuclear unit be stored separately from nuclear-inert units caught my attention because it’s a concern that seemed to come up frequently in press accounts of this incident. The recommendation came with this note:

The Air Force permits mixed storage on nuclear and nuclear-inert weapons. This was even done in Strategic Air Command day. SAC regularly mixed loads in storage in preparation for testing, training, and tactical ferry missions. Previously, SAC regulations and now AFI 21-204 does permit mixed storage as long as the unit “delineates” the separate loads.

There were actually three official reports prepared about this incident: this one by Maj. Gen. Raaberg, a blue-ribbon panel led by Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, and a Defense Science Board (DSB) review led by Gen. Larry Welch. The last one was publicly released, and there is an executive summary of the blue ribbon panel. A number of the key points and recommendations are similar in all three reports, so here I’ve just highlighted a pieces that I found interesting in the Raaberg report.

Final thought: Getting documents in the mail is fun. I am thinking of more things to FOIA because, well, dissertations take a while, so I have that kind of time. Suggestions always welcome.

Jane Vaynman contributed this guest post.