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What Happened at Minot–an In From the Cold Special Report- A B-52H departs Minot AFB, North Dakota

Dec 2, 2017
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A B-52H departs Minot AFB, North Dakota (USAF Photo)

Part I: A Failure of Leadership

by Nathan Hale

Author’s note: Over the past five months, this blog has provided extensive coverage of last summer’s nuclear incident at Minot AFB, North Dakota. In an effort to learn more about the mishap, we’ve spoken at length with a number of experts, including some of the Air Force’s leading authorities on nuclear weapons maintenance and accountability procedures. Information from those experts—and other sources—has allowed us to develop a detailed account of what went wrong at Minot. The first in our three-part series focuses on key leaders at the base and their role in the mishap.
A “perfect storm” of failed leadership, lax supervision, ineffective internal communication, inexperienced personnel and poor career field management led to last year’s nuclear incident at Minot AFB, North Dakota, resulting in the unauthorized transfer of six-nuclear tipped missiles to an installation in Louisiana.

That damning assessment was offered by former Air Force experts on nuclear weapons maintenance, security and training–retired officers and non-commissioned officer with decades of experience in that demanding profession. They are intimately familiar with the munitions—and procedures—involved in the Minot incident, having worked with Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) that use the same warhead. Additionally, two of the experts personally know (or have served with) the senior NCOs assigned to Minot’s munitions maintenance complex at the time of the mishap.

While never assigned to the North Dakota base, the retired nuclear weapons technicians served in maintenance and leadership positions at other northern-tier nuclear units, and one of them participated in several inspections at Minot. After leaving active duty, he worked as a Defense Department consultant, and assisted in developing regulations governing the maintenance of nuclear weapons. The former inspector–and the other experts–spoke with In From the Cold on the condition of anonymity.

***

Reflecting on the Minot incident, the retired nuclear weapons specialist observed that all of the factors that contributed to the mishap were “interrelated. While he does not believe that a single failure was more important that others, he voiced strong concerns about the leadership issues that set the stage for the incident.

As a result of those errors, six Advanced Cruise Missiles, with nuclear warheads attached, were loaded on a B-52 bomber and flown to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on 29 August. The mistake wasn’t discovered until after the bomber landed at its destination. By that time, the six warheads had been “missing” for roughly 36 hours.

The weapons mishap was a major embarrassment for the Air Force and the most serious breach of nuclear security protocols in 40 years. President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were briefed on the incident, and members of Congress called for an investigation. So far, the service has launched three separate probes of the incident; one was completed late last year; the second inquiry, headed by retired Air Force General Larry Welch, will be submitted in the coming weeks. A third panel, headed by Major General Polly Peyer, is expected to report its findings next month.

Four senior Air Force officers, including the commander of Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing, were fired from their jobs because of the incident, and the unit lost its certification for nuclear operations. Crews from Minot were responsible for loading the weapons onto the aircraft, which was assigned to Barksdale’s 2nd Bomb Wing. Additionally, the Chief Master Sergeant who served as superintendent of Minot’s special weapons flight was moved to a new job; four other senior NCOs were reported demoted, and more than 60 personnel—most of them from Minot—lost their individual certification to work with nuclear weapons.

The Air Force has not published its initial report on the mishap, but the service did hold a Friday afternoon press conference in mid-October, outlining its plan for punishing those deemed culpable, and preventing future incident of that type. But the press event did not address the accident’s underlying factors and media coverage—predictably–focused on the officers who lost their jobs.

Taking a more analytical approach in assessing the incident, a former weapons inspector places much of the blame on human factors, beginning with senior NCOs assigned to Minot’s 5th Munitions Maintenance Squadron. He believes that the former chief of the unit’s special weapons flight, Chief Master Sergeant Brenda Langlois, had “a major role in the failure,” claiming that “she was poorly prepared for her job.”

“She’s an excellent award writer, but not a career field expert,” the source explained. “She had been out of maintenance, in staff jobs, for almost seven years prior to being assigned to Minot.”

The retired munitions expert also reported that Chief Langlois delegated some of her responsibilities, and spent time on activities that little to do with her job.

“I understand she spent little time in the Weapons Storage Area. She chose to groom Senior Master Sergeants, who like her, looked good on paper, but didn’t know how to lead or manage.

“In the months before the incident, she was signed up to speak at the Air Force Women’s Symposium as a leader in her career field, and at the ‘Tribute to Women in the Military’ in New Mexico as a “Trail Blazer.” The focus was on her, not on the work being done.”

As evidence of Langlois’ lax attitude, the former nuclear specialist described a Senior Munitions Manager conference, which he attended with the Chief. “We were hammering out the wording of AFI (Air Force Instruction) 21-204, the instruction that details all nuclear weapons maintenance policy, and yet she has no input. For the entire week, she had nothing to say.”

He also faulted Chief Langlois for the training problems that became evident after the incident was discovered—and a number of Minot maintenance personnel lost their certification for working on nukes.

“It’s the Chief’s job to ensure people are properly trained. Whenever you have a program as detailed and paperwork intensive as the nuclear weapons training program, it is ripe to be ‘pencil whipped.’ If you don’t watch supervisors closely they can sign people off as qualified to perform tasks when in fact they aren’t. If your quality assurance evaluator isn’t top-notch, they may certify technicians on weapons maintenance tasks when they aren’t proficient.”

The retired weapons specialist also faulted other leaders in the organization, including the senior NCOs who worked for Langlois. He reports at least four members of that group were demoted as a result of the incident, while lower-ranking personnel received lesser forms of non-judicial punishment. Sources at Minot tell In From the Cold that the demoted senior NCOs (in grades E-7 and E-8) have also been reassigned to other jobs at the base.

Unlike her top subordinates, Chief Master Sergeant Langlois did not lose a stripe because of the incident. She is currently assigned to the Air Force Smart Operations (AFSO) Office at Minot, charged with implementing Sigma Six management principles at the installation. She did not respond to an e-mail request for comments on the nuclear incident, or her role in the training process.

Junior and mid-level officers in the Minot maintenance chain also escaped serious punishment and remain on the job. “Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?” the source asked. He thinks the double standard raises concerns about the management team still in place. “If they didn’t see how ineffective their senior NCOs were, they weren’t very effective themselves,” he observed.

Another former weapons specialist believes the leadership issues at Minot are evidence of wider problems within the nuclear weapons career field. “No one cares about nuclear weapons anymore,” he observed. “The enlisted career field is shrinking. Most of the assignments are in crappy places like North Dakota or Shreveport. By the time a troop gets to be a Senior NCO, they usually have kids in high school; no one wants to move the family to Minot, or Montana or overseas. They get out in droves.”

And for those who stay, prospects for advancement—and good assignments—are limited.

“Only one nuke troop was promoted to Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) last year. Why stay in a career field where your chances of getting promoted are so low? They have cross-trained senior NCOs from missile maintenance and even supply to fill the [nuclear] ranks because the Air Force is cutting manpower in favor of UAVs and fighters.”

The result, he says, is a career field where experience levels are dropping, particularly among the NCOs and officers who provide critical leadership.

“No officer wants to be in nukes,” the source explained. “It’s boring, picky, and can be a real career ender. The glory is in the war. Even conventional munitions is better because they get a chance to deploy to the Middle East and build up bombs for combat. Nuke techs are a drag on resources because they typically don’t deploy. Senior officers fill the key slots just to fill a square on their resumes.”

Problems at Minot also extended up the chain of command. The 5th BMW Commander who was fired because of the incident (Colonel Bruce Emig), had been on the job less than three months at the time of the unauthorized transfer. Colonel Cynthia Lundell, who ran the wing’s maintenance group, also got the axe, along with the commander of a subordinate munitions maintenance squadron.

While acknowledging that Emig, Lundell and the squadron commander should have been proactive in addressing organizational problems, the former weapons specialist believes the break-down began well before their change-of-command ceremonies.

“Of course the last [wing] commander (Colonel Eldon Woodie) bears some responsibility. When you have as many people ignoring the rules as you do at Minot, it could not have happened overnight.” The retired nuclear inspector also noted the tendency of some units to “throttle back” after an inspection. The 5th BMW earned high marks during a 2006 Nuclear Surety Inspection, which evaluated the unit’s ability to store, maintain and handle nuclear weapons.

Despite the successful evaluation—and the scheduled change-of-command—members of the 5th BMW should have remained focused and vigilant. “That doesn’t mean the mission won’t go on,” the nuclear expert observed. “There are still inspections down the road.”

***

In the wake of the nuclear incident, Minot experienced a raft leadership changes. Colonel Emig was removed from his post in mid-October, roughly six weeks after the mishap. He was replaced by Colonel Joel Westa, the former Vice-Commander of the 36th Strategic Wing at Andersen AFB, Guam.

Lundell’s successor, Colonel Don Kirkland, arrived at Minot in November. The retired weapons expert described Kirkland as a “big dog” brought in from Minot’s parent organization (Air Combat Command headquarters), with a mandate to fix the troubled maintenance complex.

With Colonel Westa and Colonel Kirkland in place, the 5th Bomb Wing and its maintenance group launched an accelerated effort to fix problems that led to the August incident, and regain the unit’s nuclear certification. But they faced an uphill struggle.

With many of Minot’s nuclear technicians de-certified, personnel from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana were brought in to handle day-to-day weapons maintenance and other key tasks. Sources at the base indicate that more than 40 Barksdale airmen were dispatched to Minot, and the cost of their billeting and per diem created concerns about who would pay the bill, an estimated $130,000 a month.

Meanwhile, the 5th BMW began the process of recertifying its personnel for the nuclear mission. Time became an immediate concern. In early November, Colonel Westa announced that the 5th BMW hoped to complete required training and inspections, and regain its certification by mid-February. Meeting that goal meant the wing would have re-certify most of its personnel, then pass an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI) in December, a follow-up Nuclear Surety Inspection in January and a unit compliance evaluation after that.

It was an ambitious schedule, to say the least. In preparation, members of the wing began working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. While other Air Force units looked forward to an extended holiday break, airmen of the 5th BMW were only promised a single day off—Christmas Day. Morale sagged.

But if the mood at Minot was already glum, it turned black on December 19th. That was the day that the Air Combat Command Inspector General (IG) Team released the results of the wing’s Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI). Their findings revealed continuing problems at Minot, and suggested that fixing the wing might not be as easy as first imagined.

Monday: Why Minot was given “more time” to get ready for its upcoming inspections, and a detailed look at how nuclear-tipped missiles were inadvertently loaded onto a B-52 and flown across the country. Could the same thing happen again?

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