Minot Nuclear Weapons Incident – Unit Involved Given Excellent Inspection Rating 16 months Prior
Almost exactly sixteen months before the “Bent Spear” incident involving six nuclear warheads mistakenly loaded and flown on a B-52 from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, the unit that handled and loaded the nuclear warheads was given an ‘Excellent’ rating in an Air Force Nuclear Operational Readiness Inspection.
The inspection was covered in the Minot Air Force Base’s own official publication and can be seen online at http://www.minot.af.mil/news/story.asp?storyID=123019971 . Conducted by the Air Force’s Air Combat Command Inspector General team while the 5th Bomb Wing was under its previous commander, the findings and select quotes from it (and the article covering it) are embarrassing in light of recent events, such as:
“We noticed a tremendous sense of pride throughout the 5th Bomb Wing that directly impacted the warfighting capability,” said Col. David McFaddin, ACC IG team chief”
‘After the results were read, the 5th BW Commander, Col. Eldon Woodie took the stage saying he was tickled to be the commander and thanked everyone for their hard work and coming out. ‘To the warriors of the ACC IG team I thank you for the tough scrub,’ said Colonel Woodie. ‘You are truly are leaving us better than you found us. Sweating during training prevents bleeding on the battle field,” Colonel Woodie thanked not only the Airmen and Department of Defense civilians, but the members of the local community, reminding the crowd that none of this would be possible without them as well.’
The Excellent rating given the 5th Bomb wing is a very high rating for an Operational Readiness Inspection. Such inspections involve examining how units perform the most critical duties assigned to them and verify they are being performed according to Air Force standards and regulations.
One of the many issues the Air Force is probably (and if not should be) investigating is whether the April 2006 ORI was adequately performed, and if so, how is it that in 16 months, a unit deteriorated from such a high level of performance to the level that allowed the catastrophic series of mistakes culminating in the flight of the nuclear warheads over the length of the country. The Wing Commander may have changed, but many if not most of the officers and NCOs underneath him that are responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations did not change. It is inconceivable that 5th Bomb Wing senior enlisted personnel and junior and line officers that were operating at the high levels described by the ORI allowed the handling of nuclear weapons to deteriorate to such an extent without raising an alarm long before the bent spear event. There are avenues available, such as the base and command inspector generals that would have listened to any airmen complaining about lackadaisical attitudes regarding the handling of nuclear weapons.
The Air Force may need to re-engineer how it performs ORIs and/or how often it performs them on certain units. If it is possible for a unit that handles nuclear weapons to deteriorate to unacceptable levels in 16 months, perhaps ORIs on such units should be performed every year, or every 9 months. The Excellent rating 16 months prior to the event will also likely add fuel to the conspiracy theories floating around the blogosphere that suggest that the weapons involved were part of some plan and intentionally loaded onto the planes. Due to the seriousness of what happened, I am hoping the Air Force and the Department of Defense continue to bend the rules to provide as complete public reports on the investigation as possible.
Note: Author is former Active Duty enlisted USAF