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More Nuclear Problems at Minot

Dec 2, 2017
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For the second time in less than three months, a unit at Minot AFB, North Dakota has earned low marks on a nuclear surety inspection.

In From the Cold has learned that Minot’s 91st Space Wing failed portions of a Joint Nuclear Surety Inspection (JNSI), administered in late January by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The evaluation from that agency was held concurrently with a similar inspection from by the Air Force Space Command Inspector General (IG) team. The wing passed the Space Command NSI, allowing it to retain its nuclear mission certification.

A source familiar with events at Minot reports that the 91st Wing’s failing mark from DTRA was based on a security error. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source revealed that agency evaluators were allowed to enter an area with nuclear weapons without required escorts. While DTRA personnel were authorized to be in the area, regulations required that they be escorted.

The failing grade from the threat reduction agency did not affect scores from the space command NSI. Sources report that the 91st earned passing grades from the command inspection team, and the unit’s nuclear certification was not in jeopardy. Space Command evaluators reportedly disagreed with the DTRA security write-up, and the violation was not mentioned in their NSI report.

Once known at the Defense Nuclear Agency, the DTRA reports directly to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, monitoring the safety and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Regulations require that DTRA conduct an evaluation of nuclear-capable units every five years. Air Force major commands inspect their nuclear units every 18 months.

As in the case of the Minot event, DTRA evaluations are conducted simultaneously with major command (MAJCOM) nuclear surety inspections. Air Force Space Command is the parent organization for the 91st, which is responsible for 150 Minuteman III ICBMs, located in underground complexes across northwestern North Dakota.

The missile wing’s problems in the DTRA evaluation came less than two months after Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing earned a “Not Ready” rating during an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI). That evaluation, carried out by members of the Air Combat Command (ACC) Inspector General team, came in response to last year’s nuclear mishap involving wing personnel.

During that incident, Minot crews mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles
onto a B-52 bomber from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. The mistake wasn’t discovered for almost 30 hours, well after the aircraft landed at the Louisiana installation. Four senior Air Force officers were fired because of the mishap, and the service has conducted three subsequent probes into the accident.

In response to the mishap, the service has announced plans for more than 100 changes in its nuclear handling and security policies, to prevent similar incidents in the future. Results of the various inquiries were briefed to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. Meanwhile, the bomber unit has been working to regain its nuclear certification, a process that will include several major inspections.

The first step in that evaluation process, an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspecion, was conducted in December. Though not considered a failing grade, the 5th Bomb Wing’s “not ready” rating for the INSI will require the unit to repeat that evaluation. The remake of that inspection is currently scheduled for late March.

If the bomber unit passes that hurdle, it will receive a nuclear surety inspection in late May. The latter evaluation represents one of the wing’s last major hurdles in regaining its nuclear mission certification, which was lost after last year’s transfer mishap.

Asked about the missile unit’s DTRA evaluation, a spokeswoman for the 91st Space Wing referred reporters to Air Force Space Command. A media affairs representative at the command headquarters did not immediately return calls for comment.

Air Force public affairs policy has long discouraged the release or discussion of inspection results. In a press release issued earlier this month, Space Command offered congratulations to the 91st, saying that results of the evaluation “speak for themselves.”

The 91st wing commander, Colonel Marty Whelan, offered similar thoughts in his own statement, stating that unit personnel “did a great job” during the evaluation.

A former Air Force nuclear weapons expert, who has reviewed the 91st NSI report, was less charitable in his assessment. “Not a good start for the year at Minot,” he observed, noting the the poor marks earned by the 5th Bomb Wing and 91st Space Wing in recent evaluations.

While DTRA evaluations are conducted less frequently than major command NSIs, they cover similar criteria. Nuclear inspection teams representing the various commands are required to evaluate areas covered by DTRA, helping units prepare for periodic reviews by the joint staff organization.

At one time, a failing mark from DTRA inspectors would result in the same grade for the overall evaluation. Under current guidelines, grades from command inspectors drive the unit’s final rating. Organizations cited for mistakes by DTRA are required to implement corrective actions, and report those measures to the agency.
Experts interviewed by In From the Cold said the problem discovered at the 91st Space Wing could be easily remedied, and they believe that corrective measures have already been implemented.

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