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Sun, Feb 22, 2009

Air Force Efforts Put Nuclear Security Back on Track, General Says

Application, Oversight Have Changed "Dramatically"

Prioritization and "incredible attention to detail" have restored "nuclear surety" in the Air Force, the general in charge of the service's nuclear program said at Minot Air Force Base last week. Nuclear surety is the equipment, people and processes aimed at ensuring the safety, security, reliability and control of nuclear weapons.

After an erosion of the nuclear process that began at the end of the Cold War, Maj. Gen. Roger Burg, commander of the 20th Air Force, said Thursday he feels the service is back on track, even though the required standards to pass a nuclear surety inspection have never changed. What is different, he said, is how the service has applied the standards.

"I will say our application of those standards has changed dramatically," Burg said. "And our oversight of any problems identified in the inspections has changed dramatically."

It wasn't until a B-52 bomber from Minot Air Force Base flew nuclear-tipped missiles cross-country to Barksdale Air Force Base, LA in October 2007 that nuclear surety became a newsworthy topic, Burg said.

"An equally well-publicized event that occurred several years earlier ... involved the [intercontinental ballistic missile] force [and] the fuses that were erroneously sent to Taiwan," he said. "I think it rightly made all of us question how could such a thing happen."

The fuses were shipped to Taiwan from Utah in August 2006.

These are the types of incidents nuclear surety is designed to prevent.

A nuclear surety inspection for an ICBM or bomber unit is a broad, intrusive type of inspection, Burg said. Hundreds of areas might be inspected and each area may have hundreds or even thousands of individual pieces of equipment, records, and activities to be inspected.

After the Cold War, Air Force leaders decided to shorten the inspection time frame and decrease the size of its inspection team. Instead of inspecting everything, they began taking representative samples, Burg said.

"It wasn't an intent to say, 'Let's not take care of this business,'" he said. "It was an intent to say, 'How can we do this business more efficiently?"

The 2007 and 2008 incidents prompted the Air Force to resume 100 percent inspections, Burg added. That includes personnel medical records in addition to equipment and activity logs.

"One of our key areas is looking at the Personnel Reliability Program, which is how we maintain confidence in the people who are working around nuclear weapons," he said. "In the past, we might inspect 20 percent of the medical and personnel records of people associated with a certain unit.

"You'll have thousands of potential points [to inspect], any one of which, if found to be deficient in a critical way, could lead to the finding of an unsatisfactory for the wing," Burg added. Deficiencies receive immediate attention, he said.

The process of maintaining nuclear surety has become the top Air Force priority, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted during his visit this week here. The chairman toured several sites including the weapons storage area and a missile maintenance trainer.

The Air Force is reorganizing to better support the nuclear enterprise, Burg said. But inspections will get a unit only so far.

"You do not make an organization excellent by inspecting it," he said. "You make it excellent by supporting it with priority, with resources, with people, with experience. That's what the Air Force is doing with these nuclear units now."

Burg added that he's OK with inspections turning up deficiencies despite the goal of achieving excellence.

"I'm never satisfied that ... we're getting better because we're not finding fewer problems," he said. "[What] we're not finding now indicates an incredible attention to detail."

(Aero-News thanks Samantha L. Quigley, American Forces Press Service)

FMI: www.af.mil

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