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Unit that failed nuclear missile inspection raring for second chance

Aug. 19, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Col. Rob Stanley, commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., declined to say what part of the inspection the wing failed because doing so would give too much information to adversaries.
Col. Rob Stanley, commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., declined to say what part of the inspection the wing failed because doing so would give too much information to adversaries. (Air Force)
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A Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., missile maintenance team works on an intercontinental ballistic missile. An Air Force unit that operates one-third of the nation's land-based nuclear missiles at Malmstrom has failed a safety and security inspection for the third time in five years. (Air Force via AP)

The commander of a nuclear missile wing that failed a surety inspection earlier this month likened the results to failing a complex physics problem by being off by a “fraction of a decimal point.”

Col. Rob Stanley, commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., declined to say what part of the inspection the wing failed because doing so would give too much information to adversaries.

“In this case, the thing that we were rated unsatisfactory on, I have every confidence in the world if it were a real-world situation, it would have been flawless, but our standards are so geared toward perfection — as they should be — that in this simulated environment that we have to put them through to test them, if they fall short even slightly, we have to rate the whole thing as unsatisfactory,” Stanley told Air Force Times.

Global Strike Command announced the failure Aug. 13, but said the failure does not put the nation’s arsenal at risk.

“These inspections are designed to be tough to pass,” said Lt. Gen. Jim Kowalski, Global Strike commander, in the release. “A failure doesn’t mean the wing isn’t able to accomplish its mission.”

The wing, which handles 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, failed because of tactical-level errors during one exercise during the inspection.

As a result, a “very small number of some very young folks” have been decertified and are going through retraining, Stanley said. The process is expected to take a few days. None is facing disciplinary action.

In 90 days, inspectors from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Global Strike Command will evaluate the areas that were ruled to be “unsatisfactory.”

“I wish they could come today, as a matter of fact,” Stanley said. “We’re ready for them, and our folks that came up short are ready to get up and fight and prove that they are much better than is being portrayed in the media right now.”

Both the American public and America’s adversaries should be completely confident that the wing could carry out its mission if called upon to employ nuclear weapons, Stanley said.

Still, the inspection failure and other incidents have created an image problem for the Air Force, said Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.

“How can you build public trust with an inspection system where nuclear units continue to fail?” Kristensen said in an email. “The leadership should not connote a mindset that failing an inspection is a good thing because it reveals things that should be fixed. Units with responsibility for nuclear weapons should not fail inspections. Period. Flaws should be detected and corrected during training, not during inspections.”

The failed inspection comes about three months after the Air Force sidelined 19 missile officers from the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., after the wing was rated “marginal” on one aspect of the inspection. The wing passed the overall inspection. That inspection was a consolidated unit inspection, which includes previously independent evaluations, such as operational readiness inspections. The Malmstrom failure was a nuclear surety inspection handled by the Global Strike Command inspector general to evaluate the nuclear mission.

This is the third time in five years the 341st has failed an inspection. Problems with the wing’s maintenance group and its personnel reliability program caused the wing to fail its nuclear surety inspection in 2008. At the time, the missile force operated under Air Forces Space Command, headed by Gen. Robert Kehler, who now leads U.S. Strategic Command. Kehler said then that he believed the right leadership was in place at the 341st. The commander at the time, then-Col. Michael Fortney, was promoted to brigadier general in 2011 and is now director of operations at Global Strike Command.

The 341st Missile Wing, still under Fortney’s command, also failed an inspection in February 2010.

The Air Force stood up Global Strike Command in August 2009 after a string of embarrassments — most notably the revelation that nuclear warhead fuses were mistakenly sent to Taiwan.

The Air Force Inspector General’s office reworked regulations to make it mandatory that all commands inspect their units without any notice. Previously, under Air Force Space Command, units would be notified six months before an inspection, giving nuclear wings ample time to prepare and commanders the ability to cherry-pick their best airmen to work during the inspection, according to officials at the time.

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