re: "What Happened at Minot--an In From the Cold Special Report"
"Proponents of reducing our nuclear stockpile have seized on the incident to support their cause. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month, a number of former Secretaries of State, Defense Secretaries and National Security advisers cited the mishap as another reason to move toward eliminating nuclear weapons around the globe. If the U.S. Air Force can lose six of its nukes, the thinking goes, we can only wonder about nuclear security in places like Pakistan.
But such comparisons are both specious and invalid. In reality, the six nuclear missiles never left the Air Force chain of custody. There was never any danger of them falling into the wrong hands; the greatest danger was the potential release of radioactive material into the environment had the bomber crashed. And despite its advanced age, B-52 accidents are exceptionally rare."
"(T)he infrequency of nuclear accidents does not mitigate the gravity of what happened in North Dakota last summer. As a retired nuclear expert observed, “short of actually detonating a weapon, losing control of nuclear warheads is about as bad as it gets.” Experts interviewed by In From the Cold agreed that such an incident was previously considered “unthinkable,” due to the strict accountability and control procedures already in place."
"As a result of the Minot accident, the service announced new rules for handling and accounting for nuclear weapons, which went into effect earlier this month. Under the revised directive, “nuclear and non-nuclear munitions/missiles” will not be stored in the same “storage structure, cell, or [underground storage site].” Prior to the change, both types of munitions could be stored in the same facility.
Additionally, new procedures also call for all non-nuclear missiles to have “stanchions/cones, ropes and placards” on them to clearly indicate the missile is not armed with a nuclear warhead. A placard will have the missile’s warhead status marked with labels like “trainer” or “empty.” Previously, airmen relied on a numeric code to determine the weapons warhead status.
According to Air Force Times, the new guidance also limits airmen handling or maintaining nuclear weapons to a 12-hour shift, under most circumstances. While an extended shift can be ordered by commanders to “advance defense readiness conditions, actual emergencies ... or to resolve an unexpected event,” it cannot exceed 16 continuous hours."
"(T)here is the larger question of how the Air Force (and DoD) will manage the nuclear weapons career field. With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s--and demise of Strategic Air Command—the nation’s nuclear arsenal was reduced, and there was less emphasis on maintaining the personnel and resources needed to support those weapons systems.
More than fifteen years later, nuclear technicians had become, in the words of a retired senior NCO a “drag on resources” because (typically) they didn’t deploy in support of the Global War on Terror. And, when nuclear techs did serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, their assignments were often unrelated to their career field, working as interrogators or guarding POWs.
Sometimes, their stateside assignments aren’t much better. One veteran of a northern-tier bomber base notes that many young nuclear technicians cross-train into a new job or separate from service, rather than accept an assignment at a “cold weather” base, or an overseas locations. Retirement-eligible personnel often exit as well, finding civilian life preferable to moving their families to Minot, Grand Forks, or F.E. Warren.
Similar trends can be found among officers in the nuclear career field. One DoD consultant reports that many officers view nuclear assignments as a “pain” and a potential career-ender, if major mistakes happen on their watch. He says that many munitions officers take nuclear positions as a “square filler” and move on to better assignments at the first opportunity. As a result, experience levels among officers and senior enlisted personnel have gradually declined."