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237 nuke handling deficiencies cited since 2001

Feb. 12, 2008 - 07:08AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 12, 2008 - 07:08AM  |  
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Since 2001, the Air Force's Air Combat Command has suffered 237 different "safety deficiencies" known in the nuclear community as Dull Swords while maintaining its nuclear stockpile, according to safety records.

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Since 2001, the Air Force's Air Combat Command has suffered 237 different "safety deficiencies" known in the nuclear community as Dull Swords while maintaining its nuclear stockpile, according to safety records.

The service defines a Dull Sword as a "safety deficiency not included in the accident or incident categories."

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, issued a Freedom of Information Act request for all ACC Bent Spear and Dull Sword incidents from June 1992 when the ACC took over the nuclear mission from Strategic Air Command to Sept. 27, 2007, when he made the request.

The response he received went only as far back as June 2001 because the ACC Safety database no longer has any records of Dull Sword incidents from 1992 to 2001, said Maj. Thomas Crosson, an ACC spokesman. Air Force officials could not explain why those incidents got deleted from the database.

Dull Sword is a term used by the Defense Department to describe a nuclear incident like Bent Spear, Broken Arrow and Nucflash. A Nucflash, which is a nuclear weapons accident that could create the risk of war, is the most extreme. A Broken Arrow is an accident that is not expected to cause war. A Bent Spear is typified by a "significant incident" involving nuclear weapons, according to Air Force Policy Directive 91-1.

The list of Dull Sword records provided by the Air Force includes a short description of what failed each time, ranging from failures in the Personal Reliability Program which is used to determine the airmen who can handle nuclear weapons to broken towing vehicles used to transport the warheads from the storage units to the bombers, to unexplained problems with the equipment designed to carry the nuclear weapons on the aircraft.

The 509th Bomb Wing which operates the B-2 Spirit bomber at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., alone recorded 111 of the 237 safety deficiencies, by far the most for one wing. Meanwhile, the 5th Bomb Wing, the one responsible for mistakenly loading the six nuclear warheads had 45 incidents and the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale had 50.

The highest number of Dull Swords occurred in 2006 with 63 incidents recorded, compared with 2002 and 2001, when only five and one respectively were listed.

No Bent Spear events or "significant incidents" involving a nuclear weapon could be found in the database, even though last August's accident when a B-52 Stratofortress bomber mistakenly flew six nuclear warheads from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., is called a Bent Spear by service officials.

Today, Air Force leaders will testify before the Senate Armed Service's Committee and address nuclear security in response to last August's accident, which has led to plenty of hand wringing throughout the Air Force over how the nuclear program could degrade to such a state where six warheads could be mistakenly loaded.

Minot airmen with the 5th Bomb Wing loaded a dozen AGM-129 cruise missiles to the wings of a B-52 on the morning of Aug. 29 without realizing six of the missiles were loaded with nuclear warheads. The B-52 sat on the runway without special nuclear guard until it took off the next morning and landed at Barksdale when an airman with the 2nd Bomb Wing discovered the mistake nearly 36 hours after it was made.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne launched a Blue Ribbon Review soon after the incident was briefed to President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The results of that review headed by Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, director of resource integration in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Installations, and Mission Support, will be released today and briefed to Congress by Peyer. Officials who have seen the report said it contains recommendations on how to improve the Air Force's nuclear program.

Three other high ranking Air Force officials will join Peyer in front of the committee and take questions. Lt. Gen. Darrell Darnell, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for air, space and information operations, will also testify and answer questions about the new nuclear weapons maintenance policies and procedures released in a 153-page document last month.

Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, director of operations of Air Combat Command, and the official to head the initial investigation into the Minot mishap will field questions into his investigation and answer questions after Darnell.

And former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch, will discuss his independent investigation into the incident upon Gates' request.

The opening statements, along with at least the first round of questions, will be open to the public. But the rest of the hearing will be closed.

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