Sunday, February 24, 2008

No nukes ain't necessarily good nukes

Remember those stray nukes that flew from Minot to Barksdale in firing position last August? The story broke in the Military Times when three whistle-blowing Air Force officers became aware of a back-channel scheme to acquire a few nuclear weapons by person or persons unknown and, recognizing an unprecedented breach of security protocols when they saw one, smelled a rat the size of a Great Dane and went public with their suspicions.

Here's the long version of the story, complete with comment from military people who should know what they're talking about, and a long list of procedures that were allegedly either forgotten or intentionally violated -- simultaneously -- by more than a dozen people whose jobs depend on following these very protocols to the letter every single day of their working lives.

Now sit back, grab a beer and I'll tell you a story...

If your memory's in good shape and you follow the machinations of what's laughingly known as our government, you might recall a very weird and disturbing incident from late last summer when six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, mounted in combat-ready position on the wings of a B-52 were flown from Minot AFB in North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana.

Aside from the inconvenient fact that the wing-mounted method of transport is a gross violation of regulations governing shipment of nuclear warheads that have been in place since 1968, the story didn't seem all that newsworthy. Both bases are major B-52 facilities and handle nukes routinely. Barksdale is the primary staging base for B-52s heading for the Middle East. And Caporegime Cheney has made no secret of his growing lust for nuking Iran's uranium enrichment facilities.

The main problem (outside of Cheney's obviously worsening apocalyptic madness and his willingness to take us all with him in a nuclear fireball): according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate – a document that combines data from 16 US intelligence agencies and uses it to assess the severity of threats to the US from nation-states and non-governmental entities around the world – Iran has no ongoing uranium enrichment program and hasn't been in the nuclear weapons business since 2003. Just a minor problem, though, for the world's most reviled man.

Cheney's dementia notwithstanding, what IS interesting, not to mention worrisome, about this particular transfer is that it took place in secret, the product of a complex, off-the-books clandestine operation that ignored or violated virtually every single procedure in place to prevent exactly this kind of major security breach.

The story broke in a September 5, 2007 Military Times piece, based on tips from three unidentified Air Force officers who apparently couldn't stand by and watch as six nuclear warheads were essentially stolen right out from under their noses.

Realizing that this operation was so obviously illegal that it must involve senior officers at Minot, and probably went much higher, they chose to leak the story to the press rather than take it up with base command.

The story got a lot of initial attention on blogs, discussion forums, Internet-based news outlets and was picked up by a few international news outlets. But the usual daily crop of ever-more-outrageous actions and threats by the Bush administration competed for attention and eventually shoved the missing nukes story into digital oblivion.

Meanwhile, US mass media did its best to bury the whole thing and, when Internet exposure made containment impossible, circled the wagons, spiked all but the "mistakes were made" angle, ran a couple of perfunctory, content-free stories and waited patiently for the official Air Force investigation to issue its report. The Washington Post was the lone exception to the self-imposed mass media blackout.

On September 28, the Post ran a major story on the incident -- three weeks before the Air Force issued its official report on October 18. In the time-honored tradition of holding the peasants and mid-level functionaries accountable for the misdeeds of those at the top of the food chain, the Post blamed everything on an improbable convergence of career-ending mistakes by airmen and B-52 crew members who somehow ignored the same standard procedures that had governed their working lives since their first assignments to bases that handle nuclear weapons. And in a classic case of life imitating art, the official report said pretty much the same thing.

The report blamed the incident on "multiple, simultaneous mistakes" made by at least a dozen otherwise 100 percent reliable airmen who just happened to lose their minds one August afternoon in North Dakota.

In announcing the results, U.S. Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Requirements, Major-General Richard Y. Newton III, said the incident involved an “unprecedented” series of procedural errors, which revealed “an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards.”

The report implied that nuclear security had become a little lax over the years and that the Air Force was taking steps to tighten things up. Henceforth, rigid adherence to nuclear weapons handling protocols would be absolutely mandatory at all times and violators would be severely punished.

Punishment had already been exacted on Minot and Barksdale officers and airmen alike; some 70 heads rolled in retribution. The Air Force fired four colonels who oversaw aircraft and weapons operations at Minot and Barksdale, and other more junior personnel were also disciplined, Newton said.

And it's not over yet. The case was forwarded to a three-star general, who will review the findings and determine whether any Air Force personnel should face court-martial proceedings.

So, is this all true? Is this an accurate account of what took place last August 30? Is it all just a series of unlikely mistakes? Are these airmen given to ignoring or forgetting nuclear weapons handling procedures?

Or is the official report just another federal government whitewash, thrown out there with the expectation that the majority of Americans are gullible enough to believe just about anything and the dissenting minority doesn't count anyway.

Surely we've been lied to hundreds of time before about incidents the military swears "pose no danger to the public" – except for that inexplicable cancer cluster that develops 20 years after the allegedly harmless incident took place.

And there's a few of the more notorious tales of medical and psychological experimentation on unwitting test subjects. The infamous story of the Tuskegee Airmen comes to mind. Or the one about the hundreds of GIs intentionally exposed to radiation from open-air nuclear weapons tests because military researchers wanted to determine how much of the stuff humans could absorb without suffering serious health consequences or sustaining chromosomal damage that could cause cancers or birth defects in their children.

In fact, there's such a lengthy pattern of official lying specifically intended to deceive the American public -- from the Battleship Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin to the recent "harassment" of US Navy ships by Iranian speedboats -- that judging the validity of any official report's
conclusions is quite difficult.

If the official story is true, Minot AFB must have experienced an outbreak of mass amnesia that caused veteran nuclear weapons handling personnel to completely forget their years of training and on-the-job experience. It's either that or a quiet rebellion against the tyranny of rules and regulations they're forced to live by.

In all seriousness, the official multiple simultaneous mistakes explanation means that at least a dozen – and perhaps double that number – of the most intelligent, rigorously trained and highly motivated enlisted personnel in the entire Air Force, airmen who are constantly evaluated for the mental toughness and physical strength required to perform their duties flawlessly -- committed an inexplicable series of major violations of nuclear custody, security and handling protocols... at the same facility, at the same time, during the same operation and not one of them saw anything amiss.

As a civilian with no military background, I think this stinks, but I have only my instincts to rely on. The following comments, however, come from people who've been there, done that and know these procedures inside and out. And when even they think the official story is hogwash, I've got to respect their experience and judgment.

Here's what a few of them had to say immediately after the Military Times story broke:

Re: B-52 mistakenly flies with nukes aboard
UNBELIEVABLE. I’m not sure where to begin. I’m outraged and embarrassed! Back in 1979 we had to sign for nuclear weapons verifying serial numbers, the security folks posted two man guards at the aircraft, the cops enforced two man maintenance crews access to aircraft, the 781s are annotated, maintenance job control was informed, the wing command post was informed, weapons were moved in armed convoy, etc. How were the weapons removed from storage? Who was guarding the weapons military troopers or contractors? How were they transported to the aircraft? How were the aircraft forms updated? How was the chain of custody broken? Did the flight crew and munitions maintenance OICs verify weapons status? What the hell happened here? This is dereliction of duty, Wing CC, DCM, OMS/CC Munitions Sq/CC, Security Sq Commander and a lot of other folks should be going to jail, today !!!!!!!!!!!! Maybe we have too many fighter pilots as generals. Maybe we need to split Air Combat Command back to the cold war days of SAC and TAC.

Retired B-52 Crew Chief

Re: B-52 mistakenly flies with nukes aboard
Being a former cruise missile troop, I do not see how this could have happened. If the "missile shop" failed to download the heads before taking them to the flightline, the crew loading them on the plane has a checklist asking them to "verify no warheads installed", as do the pilots.... hmmmmm, maybe they thought they were dummy heads. That's the only way I can see that possibly happening. Wonder what happened to the guy signing off that inventory?

Re: B-52 mistakenly flies with nukes aboard
I was a PACAF IG inspector in the 1970-1975 time frame. When we performed CIs, it was a very tough inspection covering all aspects of nuclear munitions. It didn't take much to take the keys, lock up the facility, and bring in the training guys to recertify the MMS handling of nukes. Is that still the procedure during this day and age? - I realize that AF manning has dropped significantly over the years and our people need to do more with less. As an example of how tough it was, I remember one time when a maintenance man changed a time phased part (rubber grommet) with a non T.O. part - as we discussed the incident around the table, the boss let them off the hook. He noticed my dissatisfaction and I told him I did not approve of his decision - that weapon had a specific mission and follow up missions would be compromised if that weapon did not explode. Luckily, the next day, they violated the two-man concept and we failure the unit. The Boss told me that he did not sleep the night because of our conversation - we had stringent rules, this is a serious incident and almost impossible to believe that it could have happened. This is bad news for the best Air Force in the world and a blot on many people's records. The only good that comes out of this situation is that it reminds Mr. Ahmadinejad to the fact that we are a very powerful country and will not take his actions lightly. He is now aware that one B-52, B-2, or whatever carries a lot of throwweight and "Mister, don't mess with us".

Re: B-52 mistakenly flies with nukes aboard
I was a navigator/radar nav of B-52s at Minot for 5 years, and there is only one person responsible for this incident, the radar navigator on the crew that flew the missiles down there. If he did his preflight correctly he would have known what he had on board, and that there was a problem. I suspect he blew it off because they were told they didn't have warheads in the missiles, and even before I left the jet in 2000 the units had become so focused on conventional warfare that the nuke mission was being neglected. Just goes to show that you NEVER take what the paperwork says or what anybody else tells you as being the truth. You ALWAYS preflight your weapons, even when you have weapons troops or some Colonel standing there tell you that you don't need to do it, because it is your job and your responsibility alone. The radar nav should have known that, and did his job. He didn't, and now they have a big mess on their hands. I suspect the radar nav will find himself up in front of an FEB explaining his mistake, and he should lose his wings. Had I been in his position I would have raised hell when I saw what I had, if for no other reason than to be a pain in the ass to the leadership for letting the weapons get to the plane in that state in the first place. That is the best part of being a radar nav on the B-52, you have a license to bitch!

Re: B-52 mistakenly flies with nukes aboard
I agree, the radar nav was the last line of defense when it came to making sure that the nukes stayed on the ground and the one in the best position to question what was going on. Shameful

But lets take a look at the other parties at fault

1) The munition Sq control room for not ensuring that the warheads were removed per schedule. Shameful
2) The missile/bomb shop for not removing the warheads per the schedule. Shameful
3) The munitions transport/handling shop for not questioning why they were driving a SAFED Nuke out the front gate of the storage area without security. Shameful
4) The security police for not being able to identify a Nuke as it goes out their front gate and not questioning it. Shameful
5) The load crew for not questioning why they were loading SAFED Weapons onboard an aircraft without security. Shameful.
6) and last the radar nav for not questioning his payload.

I also agree with another writer. This would not have happened on a SAC base.

Sometimes the same things that make a military unit effective have the opposite effect. The ability to follow orders without question and to rely on your follow team members also makes us weak.

Re: B-52 mistakenly flies with nukes aboard
This little fairy tale doesn't hold up to the slightest scrutiny. In order to believe it you have to be willing to slander a whole parade of people who, by definition, are the very best at what they do. I'm not willing to do that. I've never flown with a crew of morons. Ordnance people, ground crews, and the maintenance chief with the aircraft log book are not a bunch of shambling zombies. The entire chain of custody for those special weapons did not include people prone to making the biggest screw up in the history of the Air Force. Many posters here have pointed out that the people in this story are all top-flight professionals. What if that is true? What if every single one of them did exactly what they are trained, and required, to do? What if everything went exactly according to plan, until somebody smelled a rat and called the press?

As Sherlock Holmes would say, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The undeniable fact is that 6 special weapons were moved from Minot to Barksdale, or, 6 special weapons were moved from secure storage to a staging area for the ME. Let us not ignore the obvious- the administration is openly ramping up a conflict with Iran. They have been reported as having floated the idea of using nukes on deeply buried targets. They have already performed acts that caused an enormous, global, public outcry. I suspect that the officers who leaked this story feared that they were witness to the start of the greatest war crime in history, feared that their own chain of command was complicit in it, and did the only thing they could think of to do to stop it. That would make this story exactly what it sounds like -- a cover-up based on the first panicked lie the administration could think of.

The following is a current list of the procedures and protocols that govern handling, transporting and securing nuclear weapons. Nearly all these rules -- the "bible" for servicemen and women whose jobs involve dealing with the US nuclear arsenal – would have to have been forgotten, willfully ignored or countermanded for this "mistake" to occur. Please skim; if you actually read every word, you'll be as crazy as Cheney in less than an hour.

"Nuclear Surety Tamper Control and Detection Programs Supplement"

This Interim Change (IC) 2006-2 provides new/additional guidance regarding the definition and intent of the Air Force Tamper Detection Program, further clarifies the intent for MAJCOMs to develop and distribute sealing procedures and updates general information. A bar ( | ) indicates a revision from the previous edition.

1. Requirements and Procedures.

1.1. Tamper Control Program. The Two-Person Concept is central to nuclear surety tamper control measures in the Air Force. It is designed to make sure that a lone individual cannot perform an incorrect act or unauthorized procedure on a nuclear weapon, nuclear weapon system, or certified critical component.

1.2. Concept Enforcement. Each organization with a mission or function involving nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon systems, or certified critical components:

1.2.1. Identifies no-lone zones (where at least two authorized persons must be present during any operation or task).

1.2.1. (AFSPC) Apply Two-Person Concept procedures during training with non-war reserve assets to the extent necessary to maintain proficiency.

1.2.2. Enforces the Two-Person Concept

1.2.2. (AFSPC) Before entering a no-lone zone, brief personnel that the Two-Person Concept applies. Supervisors must ensure that individuals are aware of the location of all no-lone zone boundaries, location of certified critical components within the no-lone zone, emergency procedures, and methods for reporting violations and hazards. Do not use signs or devices externally that identify a building as a no-lone zone.

1.2.3. Develops procedures to limit entry to authorized persons who meet the requirements of paragraph 1.3.

1.2.3. (AFSPC) After entry into a no-lone zone, the supervisor/team chief of each authorized team controls individual team members within the no-lone zone.

1.2.4. (Added-AFSPC) After initial entry of an authorized Two-Person Concept team into a no-lone zone, a single, authorized individual may enter providing: (Added-AFSPC) The Sole Vouching Authority (SVA) identifies individuals wishing to gain entry to a no-lone zone, verifies authorization, and validates need for entry into the no-lone zone. Note: SVA is the representative identified as having responsibility for deciding who will enter the no-lone zone. Normally, this is the senior member of the first team entering the area. SVA may transfer between individuals provided the two individuals jointly identify

1.2.5. (Added-AFSPC) An area designated as a no-lone zone may be defined as the interior of a cabinet, a work bay or equipment bay; an entire structure or building, a junction box, a drawer, an area encompassed by an actual boundary established by painted markings, rope, or a fence; and in some instances, the interior of vehicles. Local commanders are authorized to enlarge a no-lone zone. This authority should be used sparingly and only when absolutely required. When used for unattended storage of nuclear weapons or certified critical components the no-lone zone must meet the requirements of AFI 31-101, The Air Force Installation Security Program, and AFI (Added-AFSPC) Any room, computer facility, vault, or similar area where certified critical components are repaired (operationally certified or decertified), manufactured, stored, or processed, is a no-lone zone. For an area in which maintenance is infrequently performed on certified critical components, establish a temporary no-lone zone with signs placed around the work area while components are present.

1.3. Team Requirements. (Refer to paragraph for criteria on foreign nationals.) A Two-Person Concept team consists of at least two individuals who:

1.3.1. Are certified under the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), as specified in AFI 36-2104, Nuclear Weapons Personnel Reliability Program(formerly AFR 35-99 and AFR 40-925).

1.3.1. (AFSPC) Inspectors or evaluators who meet the requirements of paragraph 1.3. may form a Two-Person Concept team in the performance of their duties.

1.3.2. Know the nuclear surety requirements of the task they perform.

1.3.3. Can promptly detect an incorrect act or unauthorized procedure.

1.3.4. Have successfully completed nuclear surety training according to AFI 91-101.

1.3.5. Are designated to perform the required task.

1.4. (AFSPC) Violations to Report. Report violations of the Two-Person Concept, including emergency response, through the command post to the commander. The commander will ensure violations are investigated promptly. A Two-Person Concept team must ascertain if unauthorized acts were performed, inspect involved certified critical components, verify their status, and reestablish the integrity of the system. Accomplish applicable visual and functional checks for components that have such procedures established.

1.6.4. PRP Interim-Certified Personnel Restrictions. Two interim-certified individuals may not form a Two-Person Concept team. Also, do not allow an interim-certified member to pilot a single-seat aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons.


2. Tamper Detection Program. Seals help to verify that no one has tampered with or accidentally activated a certified critical component.

2.1. Sealing Requirements. Certain items must be sealed because either:

2.1.1. Air Force nuclear weapon system safety rules require it, or,

2.1.2. In the case of some certified critical components, seals protect their certification status while in storage or during transportation, as specified in AFI 91-105, Critical Components (formerly AFR 122-17).

2.2. Sealing Methods. Authorized sealing methods include:

2.2.1. Safety Wiring and Lead Seals. In this method, you place a lead seal on a safety wire connected to certain switches, covers, handles, or levers and impress the lead seal with a distinctive mark using a crimping device and controlled die. An unauthorized act breaks or alters the wire connection so that you can detect activation. Use this method only in no-lone zones.

2.2.2. Tamper Detection Indicators (TDI). In this method you place an approved TDI so that it will indicate when someone has activated or had access to the interior of a certified critical component. Once the TDI is installed, evidence of tampering is visible to the naked eye or can be detected through the use of special equipment.

3.3.1. (AFSPC) Where AFSPC directives do not cover a particular local situation, wings will develop local standard publications or checklists to ensure adequate control of certified critical components or nuclear weapons and application of the Tamper Control and Detection Programs.

3.3.2. Develop and distribute procedures for sealing, where appropriate. As a minimum, these procedural directives: State when and by whom seals can be applied and removed. (AFSPC) Units will designate personnel authorized to apply and remove tamper

detection indicators (TDI). TDIs will be applied and removed by a Two-Person Concept team when required by technical orders or directives. Establish controls for the handling, receipt, storage, issue, inventory, and disposal of TDIs (including all residue), controlled dies and self-locking, non-reversible seals. (example: roto-seals) (AFSPC) Develop local controls for handling, receipt, storage, issue, inventory, and disposal of TDIs not covered in technical orders, directives or this supplement. (Added-AFSPC) The Aquila Cobra Seal TDI-1 (ACSTDI-1) is used to maintain certification of the Missile Guidance Set (MGS) during shipment. Task-qualified personnel must install, remove, and verify the ACSTDI-1. (Added-AFSPC) The ACSTD-1 system kit requires special handling. The kit

which includes special tools, camera, printer, video disks, ACSTDI-1 bodies, and fiber

optic cables does not require special handling. Maintain the video disk used during the

ACSTDI-1 installation process under proper Two-Person Concept control until all information recorded on the disk has been properly verified by the unit receiving the MGS. Maintain the master pictures taken during the installation process under Two-Person Concept

control until TDIs on MGS shipping containers are verified by the receiving unit. (Added-AFSPC) Prior to shipping a certified MGS to another unit, ensure the

receiving unit has a copy of the master pictures taken during the seal installation process.

Transmit the master pictures by facsimile machine or overnight mail. Immediately upon

receipt of the master pictures the receiving unit will contact the sending unit via telephone to confirm that the pictures have been received and are under Two-Person Concept control. The sending unit will verify the caller,s identity by immediate call back. Accomplish this verification procedure prior to shipping the MGS. (Added-AFSPC) The sending unit must inspect installed ACSTDI-1s immediately prior to loading the MGS shipping container for shipment. The same inspection is performed upon receipt of the MGS. (Added-AFSPC) Dispose of the ACSTDI-1 by destroying the body and discarding it along with the cables.