ABC News’ Luis Martinez Reports: For the fifth time this year an Air Force unit has failed an inspection of its operational readiness to handle its nuclear weapons stockpile, but Air Force officials say the failure spotlights a beefed up inspection process reinvigorated this year in the wake of a series of Air Force missteps that have refocused the service’s attention on its nuclear mission.
According to a statement from Air Force Space Command, the 90th Missile Wing from F.E.Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming underwent a two-week inspection that identified " deficiencies in several areas," but "the wing remains certified to perform its strategic mission."
It is the fifth unit this year to have failed a "Nuclear Surety Inspection" or NSI, a comprehensive inspection conducted by the Air Force’s Inspector General that measures a unit’s nuclear readiness. The inspections cover the administration of a unit’s operations, the supervision of missiles, facility maintenance and security of nuclear materials.
So far two of the Air Force’s bomb wings and three missile wings have failed their NSI’s this year, but despite the failures all of them maintained their certification to continue handling nuclear weapons.
In May, the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota failed a NSI when security personnel were observed playing videogames on their cellphones while on watch. Last month, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana had issues with a personnel program that ensures only highly trained personnel are allowed to work near nuclear weapons.
The inspections failures add to the Air Force’s troubles at a time when it has refocused attention on its nuclear mission in the wake of embarassing missteps. These included the revelation in March that two years before, the Air Force had mistakenly shipped four nuclear warhead cone assemblies to Taiwan. Ultimately 15 officers, including six generals received punishments for their involvement in the incident. That incident coupled with B-52′s carrying nuclear armed cruise missiles over the nation’s heartland ultimately led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to fire Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley.
It is Defense Department policy not to release the specific findings from NSI’s, but a Defense Official says that unlike the other two wings, the failures did not involve security or personnel readiness, but rather paperwork related to the maintenance of checklists used to maintain the Minuteman missiles housed at the base’s nuclear silos. The wing now has 90 days to rectify the specific failures in preparation for a follow-on inspection. The wing at Minot passed its second review, the Malmstrom review is scheduled for early next year.
The Space Command statement says, "with the added emphasis and focus placed on the nuclear enterprise, Air Force Space Command has increased the intensity, depth and rigor of all inspection activities to ensure that every aspect of a unit’s mission is thoroughly examined."
Air Force Space Command spokesman Col. Dewey Ford says of the inspections, "we’ve really beefed them up, these are tough tests that have been reinvigorated." The test consists of 13 measures of readiness and Ford says that if one of those is rated a failure then the whole review rates as a failure. "It is a test where you have to get everything right."
Col. Ford says failures aren’t unusual in the NSI process and that "historically there have always been failures involving the NSI’s." But with the refocus on the nuclear mission another Air Force officer says "failure is now part of the equation." Another official said the failures should be looked at in perspective, "It’s like you have a 1,000 questions on a test and you miss one and you fail," but the important thing is you are still certified to conduct the nuclear mission.