August 13, 2013

Air Force nuclear unit fails key security test

The commander of Global Strike Command says security prevents him from being specific about the the exercise it failed.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — An Air Force unit that operates one-third of the nation's land-based nuclear missiles has failed a safety and security inspection, marking the second major setback this year for a force charged with the military's most sensitive mission, the general in charge of the nuclear air force told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

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This image provided by the U.S. Air Force shows Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, is seen after a coin toss at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Aug. 18, 2012. An Air Force unit that operates one-third of the nation's land-based nuclear missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., has failed a safety and security inspection, marking the second major setback this year for a force charged with the military's most sensitive mission, Kowalski, who is in charge of the nuclear air force, told The Associated Press on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. He 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. (AP Photo/Grovert Fuentes-Contreras)

click image to enlarge

In this image released by the U.S. Air Force, a Malmstrom Air Force Base missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an ICBM at a Montana missile site. An Air Force unit that operates one-third of the nation's land-based nuclear missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., has failed a safety and security inspection, marking the second major setback this year for a force charged with the military's most sensitive mission, Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski, who is in charge of the nuclear air force told The Associated Press on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. He 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. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, John Parie)

Lt. Gen. James M. 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.

"This unit fumbled on this exercise," Kowalski said by telephone from his headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., adding that this did not call into question the safety or control of nuclear weapons at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

"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, home of the 341st Missile Wing, which is one of three nuclear missile wings. Each wing operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on alert for potential launch against targets around the globe.

On Capitol Hill, a spokesman for Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that "two troubling inspections in a row at two different missile wings is unacceptable" to McKeon.

"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.

The acting secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning, will meet with Kowalski at his Barksdale headquarters on Wednesday to discuss the Malmstrom situation and other aspects of the broader nuclear mission, according to Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick, the top Air Force spokesman. Kodlick said the visit had been scheduled for "some time" and not in response to the failed inspection.

ICBM wings undergo multiple types of inspections. The one at Malmstrom was a "surety" inspection, which the Pentagon defines as "nuclear weapon system safety, security and control." The point is to ensure that no nuclear weapon is accidentally, inadvertently or deliberately armed or launched without presidential authority.

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