Jeffrey LewisMore Nuclear Mistakes

Greetings from Istanbul.

Several people have sent me stories about the latest kerfuffle involving the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, which failed a nuclear surety inspection, and the separate decision by SECDEF Gates to fire Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne for the accidental shipment of what we are calling sensitive missile components to Taiwan. (The Salt Lake Tribune — hometown paper for Hill Air Force Base, which mishandled the components — ran a pair of good stories by Matthew LaPlante on June 5 and June 6.)

I will repeat, for the third time, my sense that the Air Force has an organizational problem that is not amenable to remedy by firing people:

Heads are going to roll — officers will lose promising careers, regular guys will get the blame. This process has already started, with the squadron commander in charge of Minot’s munitions crews.

If I have one bit of advice to Secretary Gates, it is this: Call an organizational theorist, like Charles Perrow, or a like-minded political scientist, like Scott Sagan, immediately.

Apportioning blame reassures the public and makes you look tough. But, if this accident represents a broader organizational pathology rather than mere negligence, disciplinary actions won’t solve the problem any more than screaming at someone who is sick.

I should add that the Air Force is considering some organizational remedies. But the real question is “above the paygrade” the Air Force and, even, the Secretary of Defense. The “lack of focus” that SECDEF described reflects the reality that these weapons are largely irrelevant to the day-to-day mission of the Air Force. That we have nuclear weapons we do not need is evident in the day-to-day neglect by those who handle them.

Rationalizing our force structure — standing-down unnecessary nuclear forces to include the possibility of eliminating the air- or land- legs of the triad or both — runs into thorny questions of the localities that depend on nuclear missions to justify keeping force structure at bases that might otherwise be denuded or closed. That Congress created of an additional squadron of B-52s, in response to an Air Force plan to have units to focus on the nuclear mission for six months at a time, is suggestive of this barrier.


  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Why not just gather up all the unneeded warheads and have them carefully stored, and replace them with wooden dummies that can in no way be mistaken for the real thing.

    Then the crews can be instructed to say “bang” when it is suppose to go off….

    Everyone can keep their bases, B-52s keep flying and burning up precious jet fuel, and if a warhead is mishandled, the odd head can still roll, and the organizational theorists stay unemployed.

  2. Capt D

    Mosely’s lost his integrity in handling the Thunderbirds contract and had to go. Hopefully, Sec Gates will use this opportunity to purge the AF leadership ranks of the short sighted fighter pilots and then we can have an AF that is relevant in modern wars.

  3. A reader in DC

    The only organization change is to restore the nuclear mission to those in the Air Force who for over 40 years safeguarded the force during the Cold War. The AF nuclear community under the Strategic Air Command performed the mission the right way. When accidents happened, they seriously sought to find out the cause and immediately applied the remedy. Commanders were held accountable to their missions and constant inspections reinforced the serious nature of the business. All that went away after the Cold War ended and SAC went away in 1992. The fighter pilots running the AF aren’t interested in the mission, especially those in Air Combat Command, which currently has that mission. Take it away from ACC and restore the SAC model of running a nuclear outfit the correct way.

  4. Andy Grotto (History)

    Capt D is on the right track. The nuclear incidents weren’t the main reason Gen Moseley was canned, although it was probably a contributing factor. More realistically, it was his opposition to Sec Gates’ vision for the USAF: more UAVs, fewer fancy toys like the F22.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree with the need for organizational change.

  5. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    The problem is, removing a few top brass may not be enough to change an organization whose inception, raison de’etre, organizational structure, culture, reward system, etc. are structured to give boys machines to fly around in and reward everyone accordingly.

    UAVs are so far from their mindset that unless a new bunch of mid-level officers are to come in and literally replace the majority of the officers all the way up and also change the organization’s entire reward structure, the culture remains.

    Sure, they will throw a batch more UAVs at the Afghan and Iraqi theaters to keep from ending up like General Moseley, but the emphasis will be back on the old fashioned iron programs.

    The real danger is, with petroleum supplies peaking, the ability to project power via vast expenditures of fuel is an era rapidly coming to a close. Coming generations of UAVs will be faster, more maneuverable, lighter, cheaper, and more capable in select dimensions (there are still some tasks that a live pilot can do better than a UAV 20 years hence) than even the best manned platform.

    In a couple of decades, an insurgent power that do not have this baggage of manned aircraft platforms will be able to field an air force that does a comparable job to the USAF for a fraction of the cost in fuel using very high tech UAVs. Then what?