ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Air Force on Thursday blamed administrative problems for the decision to remove an Air Force squadron overseeing an underground nuclear weapons cache, detailing another instance of questionable oversight even after the military took steps to correct similar issues.
Ron Fry, spokesman for the Air Force Materiel Command, said the problems were related to a failed inspection. But a nuclear expert suggested it appears the problems ran deeper, based on the Air Force's decision to reassign five non-commissioned officers.
The Air Force on Jan. 27 decertified the 898th Munitions Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, which maintains an estimated 2,000 nuclear warheads inside a bunkered storage facility.
Fry said the 898th Munitions Squadron was included in a regularly scheduled nuclear surety inspection in November involving its parent unit, the 498th Nuclear Systems Wing, as well as the 377th Air Base Wing — all based at Kirtland.
The two wings and the unit all failed the inspection, Fry said, but initially it was decided that the squadron wouldn't be decertified. Fry said the problems were mainly administrative, such as handling of paperwork and documentation. He declined to elaborate.
A reinspection was scheduled for mid-February. But late last month Brig. Gen. Everett Thomas, commander of Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center — the overseer of Air Force nuclear surety — recommended the squadron be decertified to allow time to identify the root cause of its problems.
As part of the action, five senior non-commissioned officers were reassigned to other duties, but Fry wouldn't disclose details. A senior NCO, such as a senior master sergeant or chief master sergeant, acts as a supervisor.
Hans Kristensen, a longtime watcher of nuclear weapons issues at the Federation of American Scientists, based in Washington, said the removal of the NCOs is a likely indication the squadron's problems ran deeper than one failed surety inspection.
Another inspection is planned in June, the earliest the 898th could be recertified. Fry said members of another squadron based elsewhere have arrived at Kirtland to take over the 898th's duties.
Kirtland is one of two major storage areas for Air Force nuclear weapons. The other is Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
The New Mexico unit was the military's third since 2003 to be temporarily stripped of its duties over concerns about how the weapons were handled or documented.
In August 2007, nuclear cruise missiles at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber and flown to a Louisiana base. The foul-up cost a colonel his command and was cited by Defense Secretary Robert Gates as contributing to his decision to fire Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.
In November 2003, the Navy said a weapons facility in Bremerton, Wash., was decertified after a ladder was mistakenly left inside a missile tube on the Trident submarine USS Georgia while a nuclear missile was being lifted from the tube.
And in March 2008, the embarrassment grew after the United States mistakenly shipped to Taiwan four electrical fuses designed for use on intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles. The items, which were returned to the U.S., were not nuclear materials.
Two months later, Gates fired Moseley and Wynne, and the Air Force began a rigorous effort to strengthen its system of ensuring proper handling of nuclear weapons and related items.
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