The Complex

DOD panel: Silly rules are causing airmen to handle nuclear bombs with forklifts

This is interesting. An April 2013 report by the Defense Science Board says that arcane safety procedures are actually making some aspects of the way the Air Force handles its nuclear weapons more dangerous.

Perhaps the best example is that nuclear weapons maintainers aren't allowed to use the hoists designed to lift B-61 nuclear bombs onto Weapons Maintenance Trucks because "the end of the bolt [securing the hoist to the truck] is flush with the outer surface of the nut while technical data require that two threads show beyond the surface of the nut," reads the report. While this condition has existed since the trucks were introduced 22-years ago and has resulted in no problems, the Air Force recently barred units from using the hoists due to their failure to meet technical safety specifications. The result?

"An awkward process entailing the use of a forkliftt to move the weapon into the truck and the manhandling of the 200-pound tail section," states the report. The document goes on to describe the workaround as a procedure "that by any informed judgment, impose[s] far greater safety risk than that presented by the deficiency in the bolt length."

Apparently, new bolts are supposed to be on their way and a whole new truck is expected to enter service around 2015.

The report goes on to cite a number of smaller examples where the service's adoption of a "zero defect" mentality for adhering to the rules and regulations for all things associated with its nuclear weapons combined with old equipment is harming the service's ability to perform what it says is one of its most important missions. It goes on to slam the Air Force's Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) -- aimed at ensuring that airmen involved in nuclear-related activities are top quality -- as overly bureaucratic and adhering to guidelines so strict the report describes them as "ludicrous."

"At one base, the PRP inspectors from [Air Force Global Strike Comand] declared it a major finding that the dimensions of the red status identification stickers [that identify a persons medical status] were 1.5 inches rather than the prescribed 2 inches," reads the report. "One medical group commander, referring to the bureaucratic excesses stated: ‘administrative paperwork and chasing regulations are the focus of PRP rather than serving the airmen on PRP to ensure they are ready to perform their jobs'."

In something that sounds like it's straight out of Catch-22, the PRP requires airmen who need to go off base for a routine dental visit to have their status allowing them to work on nukes temporarily revoked because some medical flaw could, in theory, be discovered during this visit that would disqualify them from working in the service's so-called nuclear enterprise.

For example, an off-base dental appointment to have an annual examination or a routine filling requires suspension until the individual proves upon return that there was no cause. While the system declares there is no stigma with suspension, the individual must physically visit the medical facility upon return (at a specified time in some wings) and cannot perform his work until this administrative process is accomplished. Individuals who care a great deal about their work team know that there is no cause for suspension and feel they are forced to let their team down for no reason. It can take three to five days to return to work when the eventual determination is that there was no cause for concern. This also requires the time and attention of medical technicians, doctors, and certifying officials.

We can't make that stuff up.

"Much of the risk assessment conducted across the Air Force nuclear enterprise has little to do with performance, safety, and security risk to accomplishing the missions," reads a memo from the board's chairman, Paul Kaminski, which accompanies the report." Decisions to avoid very small technical risk result in far greater risk to personnel to perform essential nuclear related-tasks."

The report is one of several published over the last few years aimed at assessing the Air Force's progress in revamping its nuclear weapons-related activities. A 2007 incident where nuclear-tipped cruises missiles were mistakenly flown across the country and left missing and unguarded for more than a day and a 2008 incident where Air Force nuclear triggers were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan led to the firings of then Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and the creation of a new command, Global Strike Command to oversee the service's fleets of ICBMs and nuclear bombers.

Retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, now chair of DOD's Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety, notes that the Air Force has "implemented extraordinary measures" that have been largely successful in restoring the "high standards of professionalism and discipline" to the nuclear enterprise.  

Still, the service needs to, "provide faster and broader material evidence that the mission is indeed treated as Job 1 (or even as first priority behind the demands of ongoing combat operations)" reads a memo by Welch that accompanies the report. This can by accomplished by refurbishing dilapidated facilities, purchasing basic new materials (such as maintenance trucks described above) and by developing more intelligent ways to enforce performance standards, states the report.

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