The Air Force just notified Congress that the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base received unsatisfactory ratings for two areas in the scheduled Defense Nuclear Security Inspection conducted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The inspection found that 1) management and administration, and 2) tools, test, tie down and handling equipment were all unsatisfactory.
On Saturday, Noah Shachtman at Wired's Danger Room reported from inside sources that the wing had failed the test of readiness to handle nuclear warheads and that there were problems with the personnel reliability program.
The Air Force has stated many times, and as recently as yesterday, that maintaining accountability and improving stewardship of the Air Force's nuclear program is a top priority. But this is the third Air Force nuclear unit to fail an inspection this year, and moreover, it now means that all three missile bases with deployed land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM)--Minot, Malmstrom, and now Warren-- have failed their security tests. Let's review: the 5th missile wing at Minot Air Force Base failed a security test in May; officers removed classified nuclear missile components from the base in August; the 341st missile wing at the Malmstrom Air Force Base failed a security test last month; and in August 2006, the Air Force accidentally sent a shipment of classified ballistic missile components to Taiwan.
While the Air Force has disciplined numerous officers over past nuclear botches, this latest security test failure raises serious questions about whether accountability is working at the Air Force. Sources at these facilities tell POGO that they are seriously concerned, and that they believe the Air Force's attitude towards security is all wrong. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency's security tests isn't exactly reassuring.
This most recent failure also begs the question of whether now is the time for moving away from the ICBM leg of our triad, which also includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles and air-delivered missiles. The idea of a dyad is an issue of serious debate: the recently released Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century U.S. National Security reports that scientists and advisors are “divided” on this topic, although there is little doubt that the financial savings would be substantial.
-- Peter Stockton, Ingrid Drake, and Mandy Smithberger