Air Force leaders step down

Checklist failure caused downfall of the service’s chiefs

A day after resigning at the request of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley told reporters that failure to maintain consistent technical and process discipline was the primary cause of the slips in nuclear security that ultimately led to his firing.

Moseley told the Air Force Times that the shrinking U.S. military played a role because noncommissioned and junior officers are busier. But “adherence to checklists and the focus on compliance has everything to do with knowing the rules, knowing the process and holding yourself to the highest possible standards and then complying.”

Gates recommended that President Bush replace Moseley with Gen. Norton Schwartz, a former C-130 pilot with combat experience in Vietnam and with the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Schwartz leads the Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Gates also forced the resignation of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, the first time a service’s secretary and chief of staff have been dismissed simultaneously. In addition, Gates announced the suspension of personnel cuts to the Air Force during a tour of Langley Air Force Base, Va.; Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.; and Scott Air Force Base.

“One of the assets that the new leadership of the Air Force will have going forward is I think a lot of these folks’ pride has been offended,” Gates said in an interview while returning from Scott Air Force Base to Washington. “And several of them said to me, ‘We’re better than this.’ And I think there is a real determination to show that and get on top of these problems very fast.”

The dismissals follow a series of incidents that raised questions about the ability of the Air Force to fulfill its responsibility to maintain tight nuclear weapons security.

The most prominent incident was in August 2007 when six cruise missiles with nuclear rather than conventional warheads were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 at Minot Air Force Base, N.D, and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The weapons were under Air Force control, but spent almost 36 hours on runways at Minot and Barksdale without special security before an airman at Barksdale discovered the mistake.

Sen. Carl Levin, (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, held hearings to investigate, saying that “no breach of nuclear procedures of this magnitude has ever occurred.”

The commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot and three other senior officers were replaced following the incident, and 69 noncommissioned personnel lost their certification to handle nuclear weapons.

A follow-up investigation revealed that throughout the Air Force, 237 reported safety deficiencies occurred in the handling of nuclear weapons between 2001 and 2007, none of which were characterized as being as serious as the Minot-Barksdale flight.

Despite the continuing investigations, the 5th Bomb Wing failed a follow-up nuclear surety inspection that began May 17 and concluded in early June. The errors, according to a Defense Threat Reduction Agency report, were primarily because of a lack of supervision, compliance with procedures and training of security forces. The errors noted during mock attacks on facilities throughout the base included a guard playing video games on a cell phone and another who didn’t know her role in an emergency response situation.

Other incidents included failure to use correct entry codes in restricted areas, check emergency vehicles for unauthorized personnel before allowing them into restricted areas, secure the route nuclear weapons would take between storage and being loaded on a bomber, and arm Air Force personnel who guard the route. In addition, security forces failed to clear a threatened building while entering it. If the exercise had been real, the inspectors, representing enemies, would have killed three of the four and taken control of the building. Inspectors blamed most of the incidents on officers who failed to remain engaged and motivated to train and supervise noncommissioned personnel in maintaining high levels of security.

The inspection will be repeated in August.

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