Air Force unit in nuke error falls short

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Air Force wing blamed for a foul-up in which a bomber mistakenly flew across America armed with nuclear missiles will have to be retested after coming up short in an inspection.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Air Force conducted a weeklong inspection of the Minot Air Force Base's 5th Bomb Wing beginning May 16, said a base spokeswoman, Maj. Elizabeth Ortiz.

"It was a very thorough and important inspection that highlighted areas for improvement, especially in areas of training and discipline," Ortiz said. "That's what we're working on and that's where we're focusing on."

The Air Force said it would not release the inspection findings, saying the report was classified. The Air Force Times, citing a copy of the report, said the base received an unsatisfactory grade and inspectors found security breakdowns during mock attacks at the base.

The Air Force Times said inspectors saw a security forces airman playing video games on his cell phone while standing guard at a restricted area. Another airman nearby was "unaware of her duties and responsibilities" during the exercise, the newspaper said.

Col. Joel Westa, the Minot Air Force Base commander, did not return telephone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

An Air Force spokesman, Maj. Tom Crosson, stopped short of saying the base flunked the inspection but said, "There were areas identified needing improvement."

The base will be retested in 90 days.

"Had there not been areas of needing improvement, the team would not go back in 90 days," Crosson said Friday.

The 5th bomb wing was recertified in the handling of nuclear weapons in late March. It had been decertified after a B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed last August with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in Minot and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

The Minot wing's decertification last year cost Westa's predecessor, Col. Bruce Emig, his command, though he had been base commander for only a couple of months when the August incident occurred.

Ortiz said Friday that the base's B-52s would continue to be armed with nuclear weapons.

"The bomb wing remains certified to continue operations," Ortiz said. "But we've got some things to work on, and we're doing that."