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Missteps in the Bunker

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Washington Post

Some Air Force veterans say the base's officers made an egregious mistake in allowing nuclear-warhead-equipped missiles and unarmed missiles to be stored in the same bunker, a practice that a spokesman last week confirmed is routine. Charles Curtis, a former deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration, said, "We always relied on segregation of nuclear weapons from conventional ones." [highlighting mine]

Former nuclear weapons officials have noted that the weapons transfer at the heart of the incident coincides with deep cuts in deployed nuclear forces that will bring the total number of warheads to as few as 1,700 by the year 2012 -- a reduction of more than 50 percent from 2001 levels. But the downsizing has created new accounting and logistical challenges, since U.S. policy is to keep thousands more warheads in storage, some as a strategic reserve and others awaiting dismantling.

First of all, mixing nuclear equipped missiles with unarmed missiles is a bad call. Second of all, misplacing nuclear warheads is never "harmless."

While Air Force officials see the Minot event as serious, they also note that it was harmless, since the six nuclear warheads never left the military's control. Even if the bomber had crashed, or if someone had stolen the warheads, fail-safe devices would have prevented a nuclear detonation.

Saying the misplacement of nuclear warheads as harmless presents a military that is no longer focused on the important task of guarding said nuclear warheads. And it seems I am not the only one who feels that way:

A secret 1998 history of the Air Combat Command warned of "diminished attention for even 'the minimum standards' of nuclear weapons' maintenance, support and security" once such arms became less vital, according to a declassified copy obtained by Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' nuclear information project.

Yet, the Air Force would have us believe otherwise:

Last year, the Air Force eliminated a separate nuclear-operations directorate known informally as the N Staff, which closely tracked the maintenance and security of nuclear weapons in the United States and other NATO countries. Currently, nuclear and space operations are combined in a single directorate. Air Force officials say the change was part of a service-wide reorganization and did not reflect diminished importance of nuclear operations.

One of the main components of success for the Nuclear Powered Navy (at least when I was in the Navy) is the fact that it is maintained as a separate component of the Navy, with a separate chain of command. Obviosly, the Air Force, in this incident, reinforces that need for separation.

However, the point I really want to make is that this is just a further reflection of leadership failure. The decision to combine storage is a reflection of the attitude of the top leadership in the Air Force. Unfortunately, it is filtering down to the lower levels. Even more unfortunate is that enlisted men will be used as scapegoats while leadership is given a cursory review, and the results tossed in the chit can.

But if you really want to get to the root cause, look no further than here. Is it really all that surprising that under the command of a man who's commitment to his own military service is questionable that military command would start to diminish?

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