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Repair Job, Revisited

Dec 2, 2017
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The new commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot, Colonel Joel Westa (USAF photo).


As of tomorrow, Colonel Joel Westa will have one of the toughest–if not the toughest–jobs in the Air Force.

In a ceremony at Minot AFB on Thursday, Westa will take command of the troubled 5th Bomb Wing. The B-52 unit recently lost its certification for handling nuclear weapons after an errant flight on 29 August flight, when one of the giant bombers mistakenly ferried six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. A six-week Air Force investigation found serious problems in weapons handling and safety protocols.

As a result of the incident–described as the worst breach of nuclear weapons procedures in 40 years–the Air Force fired the 5th Bomb Wing Commander, Colonel Bruce Emig, along with the maintenance group commander and a munitions maintenance squadron commander. The service also dismissed the commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale. The aircraft and crew involved in the transfer were assigned to the Louisiana base.

At Minot, Colonel Westa takes over for Colonel Paul G. Bell, who had served as acting wing commander following Emig’s dismissal. Bell will continue to serve as the 5th Bomb Wing Vice-Commander, a post he has held since July 2006.

Colonel Westa is also a career bomber pilot, most recently assigned as Vice-Commander of the 36th Wing, located at Andersen AFB, Guam. That wing serves as a host unit for CONUS-based aircraft, including heavy bombers, that deploy to the central Pacific region. A key installation for bomber operations during the Vietnam War, Andersen remains significant as a forward operating base, given its proximity to hotspots in northeast Asia and the South China Sea.

While the command transition at Minot was hardly unexpected, Air Force public affairs handled it in a clumsy manner. When Colonel Bell took over for Emig barely 10 days ago, information provided to the press suggested that he might remain in the job for an extended period, perhaps permanently. Stories from the Associated Press and Minot Daily News, based on accounts from the Minot PA office, did not identify Colonel Bell as an “acting” or “interim” Wing Commander, indicating that he might be Emig’s permanent replacement.

Confusion over Bell’s assignment status was the result of two factors. First, most members of the media don’t understand the mechanics of replacing a wing commander who is suddenly relieved of his/her duties. Until a new commander can be assigned, the deputy or vice moves up and runs the unit on a temporary basis.

However, the Minot PA shop didn’t help matters by taking a heads down/circle-the-wagons approach during the recent controversy. We contacted them after it became known that Colonel Emig had lost his job, and the Minot Public Affairs Office referred us to their counterparts at Air Combat Command. A spokesman at ACC expressed surprise at that move. “It’s their wing commander,” he told us, “Minot should know and they should put out the statement, not us.”

As for Colonel Westa, he faces the dual tasks of getting Minot re-certified in its nuclear mission, and restoring scores of airmen to PRP status, which clears personnel to work with (or around) nuclear weapons. Since late August, more than 65 airmen of varying ranks–Lieutenant Colonel and below–have lost their PRP certification; most of them are reportedly assigned at Minot.

Air Force spokesmen have emphasized that there is no set “timetable” for re-certifying personnel or the bomb wing’s nuclear mission. However, a couple of things seem certain. First, the timeline will be relatively short, due to mission constraints. Minot’s bombers (and crews) are needed to support the nation’s nuclear mission; until the 5th Wing can be recertified, other units will have to shoulder the load, and there are certain capabilities that can’t be replicated outside the B-52 community.

There’s also the matter of continuing the retirement of advanced cruise missiles–the weapons at the center of the Minot debacle. Until the wing is re-certified, Minot cannot send any additional cruise missiles to Barksdale for decommissioning. In theory, the 2nd Bomb Wing could send aircraft and ground crews to Minot and handle the job, but that would be an expensive proposition. The Air Force would prefer to see the 5th Bomb Wing get back on its feet, and resume its role in the transfer and retirement process.

Finally, the repair job at Minot will be carefully monitored, with absolutely no tolerance for pencil-whipping or cutting corners. The Air Force investigation found “an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling procedures at Minot” (no kidding), so the re-certification of personnel and the wing will be done strictly by the book. And, once the job is finished, look for Minot to get a visit from the ACC Inspector General Team undergo a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) as well.

Despite the absence of an official timeline, we’re guessing that Colonel Westa will be given no more than six months to fix the 5th Wing and get ready for inspections. In today’s operational environment, that’s all the time the Air Force can give him.

We’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: This will be a very busy winter at Minot.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Maintaining the New Hollow Force

An Iowa Air National Guard KC-135E departs on its “retirement flight” earlier this year. Note the “7” in the tail number of the aircraft in the foreground; that indicates the jet rolled off the Boeing assembly line in 1957. The Air Force would like to retire many of its aging tankers and transports, but remains hindered by Congressional mandates (USAF photo).
Apparently, it’s news to the Washington Post, but it’s a topic we’ve been writing about for a number of months. In his weekly “Fine Print” column, national security writer Walter Pincus describes Air Force efforts to maintain aging aircraft that should be retired but can’t–thanks to Congressional mandates. At one New Jersey base, he writes, a number of KC-135E tankers are no longer airworthy, so they’re moved around the ramp for routine engine runs, and to keep the tires from going flat:

Once a week, at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, a crew chief on a tug tows one of a dozen or more aging KC-135E flying tankers a short distance just to keep the tires from going flat. Every 25 to 30 days, each of the planes is taxied to a special spot just to sit while its engines run so that the aircraft can be kept on a congressionally mandated standby status.

Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley bluntly told the House Armed Services Committee in a written statement last week that “the Eisenhower administration-era, KC-135Es, that have served our nation so well for 50 years, have exceeded available engineering data and we can no longer anticipate what element of the weapon system will fail next.”

[snip]

But KC-135Es are not the only aircraft that Congress has prohibited the Air Force from retiring. Other language in law affects Lockheed‘s C-5A Galaxy giant transport, the C-130E Hercules light transport and other aircraft. Legislators are acting either to keep open Air Force bases in their districts or to continue contracts for the companies that make or rebuild the planes.

Congress in the fiscal 2004 budget prohibited the retirement of C-5As, which then numbered 111. Last year it legislated that the Air Force should try to update the older C-5As, but questions arose when the estimated cost surpassed $11 billion.

Meanwhile, Moseley said, “We can fly them [C-5As)] in America for outsized cargo locally. We would just not take them overseas.” One result: When the Air Force needed to carry heavy cargo such as the new mine-resistant vehicle, known as MRAP, to Iraq, it rented Russian Antonov airplanes to help carry the load.
[snip]

Moseley and Wynne pointed out to the House panel that C-130Es average “more than 43 years old,” and “more than 20% of them are grounded or have flight restrictions preventing them from being useful to the Air Force.” In addition, Moseley said the commander at Ramstein Air Base in Germany said a C-130E there “is so broke we can’t operate it and we have four so restricted that we can’t lift any cargo other than the crew.”

We detailed many of these problems last July, based on a lengthy article in Air Force magazine. The publication describes the current aircraft maintenance and age issues as “worse that the [infamous] hollow force of the Carter years, when the service was also hampered by old airframes and shortages of everything from spare parts to toilet paper.

Happily, we can report that today’s Air Force lavatories are well-stocked, but problems of aging aircraft are far from resolved. And, as Mr. Pincus points out, Congress remains one of the biggest obstacles in addressing these issues, insisting that the service maintain obsolete or high-maintenance airframes, to preserve local defense dollars and the jobs they create.

According to the Post, at least one lawmaker is pushing to get rid of the Congressional restrictions. New Jersey Republican Jim Saxton–whose district includes McGuire AFB–believes that the Air Force should be able to get rid of old airplanes that it can no longer fly or fix. But Mr. Saxton also understands that he’s fighting an uphill battle. We have those that would prohibit the Air Force here in Congress from doing anything about it by legislating that they must keep these old airplanes on the tarmac,” he said last week.
Congressman Saxton didn’t mention names, but some of “those in Congress” include Delaware Senator Tom Carper and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who are strong supporters of the C-5A program. With C-5 bases in their states, both Mr. Carper and Mr. Kennedy are in favor of doing whatever it takes to keep the giant airlifters flying–even if planned upgrades are becoming too expensive.

Of course, there is also the issue of what the Air Force would do with the money if Congress capitulated and allowed the service to retire all of those old aircraft. The Air Force is lobbying for more F-22s, and it would like to extend production of the C-17 airlifter as well. However, the Raptor remains the service’s #1 priority, with the C-17 falling lower on the acquisition totem pole. While we’ve long championed the F-22, we also understand the Air Force (and DoD as a whole) face a severe shortage of strategic airlift assets, needed to sustain global operations. Against that backdrop, it’s becoming tougher to support the Raptor over the C-17.

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