National Security

Exclusive: Air Force to Scrutinize Nuke Bomber Units Following Missile Scandal

The push underscores a fundamental question: Can the nuke force police its own?

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. — The Air Force will scrutinize its units that fly dozens of bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons across the globe, the latest aftershock of an embarrassing cheating scandal in its nuclear missile force that led to the unprecedented removal of nine commanders from their jobs and the resignation of a 10th in March.

The review, which hasn't previously been reported, is the next phase of the service's nuclear "force improvement program," and will operate in a similar fashion to the ongoing assessment of the beleaguered missile units, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, who oversees both forces from here as the chief of the Air Force's Global Strike Command. The general said the first review found an array of areas that needed improvement, from old equipment to poor morale, and that he hopes the new internal study will identify parts of the bomber fleet that can be fixed to avoid future problems. Global Strike Command's forces include Boeing's massive eight-engine B-52H Stratofortress bomber and Northrop Grumman's stealthy, bat-wing shaped B-2 Spirit, each of which can be equipped with conventional or nuclear weapons.

The bomber review will occur in May and June, and include interviews with hundreds of rank-and-file Air Force personnel. It comes just three months after senior Pentagon officials acknowledged that an investigation into drug use in the Air Force had uncovered widespread cheating on monthly proficiency tests among nuclear missile officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. About 100 officers were ensnared in the probe -- more than half of the 190 missileers at Malmstrom -- and 82 ultimately received administrative discipline ranging from letters of counseling to non-judicial punishment. Criminal cases remain open against nine officers for alleged drug activity or sharing classified information -- test answers -- on unclassified cell phones, Air Force officials said. The drugs linked to the case include ecstasy and amphetamines.

The cheating scandal exposed significant problems with morale and leadership in the force safeguarding the United States' aging arsenal of nuclear missiles, top Air Force officials say. But it also raised a fundamental question for Global Strike Command, which oversees both the nuclear bomber and missile forces: Can an organization that was founded in the wake of another crisis shake off its demons and move forward?

The command was established nearly five years ago after another scandal in which six cruise missiles loaded with nuclear warheads were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52H bomber at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and transported without the usual strict security precautions to Barksdale, a sprawling, tree-lined installation near Shreveport along the Red River. That gaffe, along with other mistakes, prompted a Pentagon investigation that led then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to fire Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne from their jobs on June 5, 2008.

Current Air Force Secretary Deborah James, Wilson, and other top service officials have promised accountability following the latest crisis. But they also appear determined to do whatever they can to avoid another one. In addition to launching the review of the bomber force, Air Force leaders say they want to restore trust with the rank-and-file troops safeguarding the nation's nuclear missiles, and are actively looking for ways to do so.

"We've got to hit singles. We've got to start showing some wins," Wilson told Foreign Policy, using sports metaphors. "And they don't have to be big wins, they just have to be wins that people see and tangibly believe that, 'Once my idea was listened to, it was acted upon,' and that will build momentum."

One high-profile proposal calls for those serving in the nuclear force to receive some form of financial incentive. It isn't yet clear who will receive additional money, but Wilson said it could come in the form of cash bonuses when personnel re-enlist to stay in the nuclear force or additional pay on days in which missileers pull overnight "alert" shifts, in which they leave their headquarters, travel dozens of miles to a missile site, and take elevators underground to man the electronic panels that control the missiles. The general said he must make recommendations on the incentives proposal to James by April 30, but declined to say what his preferences are.

In total, the so-called force improvement plan review led to more than 330 recommendations for the missile force, and all but a handful will either be adopted or receive more research in the future, said Brig. Gen. Michael Fortney, the director of operations at Global Strike Command. The ones that were cast aside typically conflicted with other recommendations. Some personnel asked to wear blue flight suits, for example, but others wanted to stay with the current green ones, so the brass tabled any change. On the flip side, Wilson said it's likely that the Air Force will soon allow troops working in the missile force to wear some kind of patch on their uniform -- a point of pride that was once allowed, but taken away several years ago.

The missile force review went far beyond scrutinizing the job of the missile launch officers, too. Its helicopters squadrons, maintenance units, and security forces all received scrutiny, giving troops in each organization a chance to air longstanding concerns. For example, the security forces who defend the 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and guard nuclear warheads in missile silos near Malmstrom, Minot, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming want new vehicles to respond to threats to missile sites. They say the armored Humvees they use now are dangerous on many of the narrow, treacherous roads they must travel, especially in the winter. Many of the troops would rather use unarmored sport utility vehicles when possible while keeping a smaller fleet of armored vehicles to response when recently installed surveillance cameras spot a potential threat.

Global Strike Command leaders also want a seat at the table in the Pentagon's internal deliberations over its Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, which will eventually replace the military's Humvee fleet, and are interested in wearing the Army's "Multicam" camouflage uniform pattern, rather than the distinctive "tiger stripe" camouflage the Air Force adopted in 2011, Air Force officials said. Multicam has proven itself effective in Afghanistan, and Wilson said he does not see why it would not be useful to security forces in the wooded environments around missile sites.

"It's a pretty good uniform, and it's pretty good at making sure that under different conditions -- day, night -- I can blend in, versus stand out," he said. "And it's pretty durable. I'm OK with it."

The Air Force is forging ahead with its attempts to improve the nuclear force as it continues to plan for several expensive acquisition programs that will require continued support on Capitol Hill. The plans come at a time when some analysts question whether it's necessary for the Pentagon to keep three ways to deliver nuclear weapons -- bombers, ICBMs, and missiles launched by Navy submarine -- more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War. But in a common refrain for the nuclear force, Wilson said it makes sense to keep each leg of the "triad" because they all have their strengths and the United States has not had a major world war since the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Now, we can say lots of things changed, but part of the change is we had a new weapon, and people said, 'Whew, this is like nothing we've ever seen before.' And since then, we haven't had great power wars between nations since 1945," Wilson said. "Are we the only reason? Absolutely not. Are we part of the reason? I would say absolutely so."

The equipment is getting old, though. The Air Force is expected to launch a contract competition this fall for a new long-range strike bomber to replace the aging B-52H, which last came off the assembly line in 1962. Air Force officials have said the new aircraft could cost $550 million per plane, and they want up to 100 of them -- putting the overall price tag at $55 billion or more. In the meantime, the Air Force also is planning a variety of upgrades to both it and the B-2 stealth bomber, first unveiled in 1989. The B-52's bomb bay is being reconfigured to carry smart weapons internally at a cost of $24.6 million and its communications equipment will get a $1.1 billion upgrade to allow it to share information with other aircraft nearby. The B-2, pictured below, will get new avionics and other equipment to ensure that it can continue to attack targets while remaining invisible on radar to enemy forces.

On the ground, the Air Force also is preparing to upgrade its Minuteman ballistic missile arsenal with a new guidance system and the launch facilities with new oxygen generation units and classified printers, said Brig. Gen. Fred Stoss, who oversees weapons requirements for Global Strike Command. At the same time, it also is preparing for new solid rocket motors in the missiles, since the propellant in them eventually loses its usefulness, and planning incremental updates to the ICBM arsenal that will eventually replace the Minuteman III with something called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

"We have to make sure we have an affordable way to make the Minuteman III and its successor out as long as the nation needs the ICBM," Stoss said. "Some of our studies as we're looking at it, we're thinking 75 years or longer for the capability we're looking to do."

Wilson said Global Strike Command is not "going to walk by any problem," and is trying to be as open and transparent as it can to change the culture in the nuclear force going forward. Following the bomber review, he plans a third assessment phase that will analyze headquarters units the same way.

"We're not trying to hide anything. This was... I didn't see it coming," he said, searching for words to describe the cheating scandal. "I wish it hadn't happened, but I can also tell you that because it has happened now, we're going to use this. There's this Robert Frost quote: 'The only way out is through.' And we're going to get through this, and we're ultimately going to be better and stronger as the result of our efforts here."

Air Force photos


Nuking the Budget

Secret Energy Dept. report says boondoggle to handle Cold War plutonium will cost billions more.

A confidential study by the U.S. Energy Department has concluded that completing a controversial nuclear fuel factory in South Carolina may cost billions of dollars more than the department has previously promised, according to government officials and industry sources briefed on its results.

The study, conducted for Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, also found that finishing and then operating the factory to help get rid of Cold War-era plutonium as part of a nonproliferation arrangement with Russia would likely cost a total of $25 billion to $30 billion on top of the $4 billion spent on its construction so far, the sources said.

That amount is so high, the officials said, that Barack Obama's administration is leaning toward embracing what one described as "some other option" for dealing with the 34 tons of weapons plutonium that the so-called Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River was supposed to help eliminate. The problem is that walking away from the plant won't be easy, politically or diplomatically.

Many officials now agree that "it's time for a shifting of gears," said an administration official, who requested that he not be named because he was not authorized to speak about the report. He added that accommodating such an expensive project within federal budgets that will be constrained for years to come is not considered feasible.

But no clear alternative to the fuel factory has been chosen, much less announced. As a result, officials said, the administration will likely propose to keep funding the plant's construction in fiscal 2015, albeit at a level below the roughly $343 million appropriated in 2014. The plant's builders have sought $600 million to $700 million a year to keep construction on schedule.

This decision in turn means that in its forthcoming new budget proposal, the Energy Department will advocate spending hundreds of millions of dollars to continue work on a factory unlikely to fulfill its initial goal -- on top of the billions it has already spent.

Asked about the report, a spokesman for the contractor building the plant referred questions about it to the Energy Department. Keri Fulton, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the arm of the department responsible for the MOX project, said the agency would not comment.

Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman declined to comment on the projected costs Friday, Feb. 14. But he told the Center for Public Integrity at a nuclear weapons conference in Arlington, Va., that "we are taking very, very seriously obviously the MOX program. We've had a hard look at it. We're going to continue to examine what all of our options are."

Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) -- the principal champion of keeping the MOX project alive -- said his office did not have a copy of the report and offered no comment.

Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, held up Moniz's confirmation in 2013 while demanding a new pledge from the White House that the plant, which employs 2,100 workers in his state, would be finished. His spokesman said any notion that he accepts the need to embrace an alternative would be "incorrect."

But senior administration officials have said they would support the completion and operation of the MOX plant only if its construction costs could be substantially reduced. Without new savings, a government official and an industry official said, the new report suggests that construction costs alone could reach $10 billion, or nearly 10 times the initial estimate and more than $2 billion higher than the department's most recent public tally.

As a result, the department has engaged in protracted private negotiations with Shaw Areva MOX Services, the French- and Dutch-owned consortium responsible for building and running the plant, to revise the contract in a way that would limit the company's profits and boost its responsibility for cost overruns.

"Areva should know that if it makes mistakes, it should suffer the consequences," one government critic of the program said, noting past construction problems that have boosted the project's costs. But the negotiations have so far stalemated, with the company refusing to accept Energy Department's demands, government and industry sources said. That's why the administration is now moving to embrace other solutions in the coming year, they said.

Initially, U.S. officials expected that Russia -- which committed years ago to a similar program to convert its plutonium into reactor fuel -- would object to any American decision to abandon the project. But one government official said that in private diplomatic discussions, the Russians had indicated they might support a U.S. decision to instead transform the plutonium metal into a less explosive powder -- partly through oxidization -- and then bury it deep underground in concrete containers. Among the alternatives that have been studied by the department over the past year, this idea was the cheapest, several sources said. One said it would cost only $6 billion and take only five years.

The speed with which that U.S. effort could be completed was attractive to the Russians, the official said.

The department's study was conducted by John MacWilliams, a Harvard University-trained lawyer and partner at a Boston-area private investment fund. He also has been studying other multibillion-dollar department programs plagued by cost overruns. MacWilliams did not respond to email and phone requests for an interview.

Moniz, who has spent most of his career as a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped broker the agreement with the Russians that called for joint efforts to dispose of 34 tons each of plutonium, one of two principal fuels used to power nuclear arms. The plutonium came from tens of thousands of warheads dismantled at the end of the Cold War.

The MOX plant was designed to crush the plutonium cores, or "pits," of those warheads, bake the powder, and oxidize it -- but then do even more: It was to mix it with oxidized uranium to make a so-called "mixed oxide" fuel that would be burned in commercial reactors.

So far no commercial reactor operators have pledged that they would burn the fuel, however. And one reason the plant's lifetime operating costs were estimated in the department's report to be so high -- a total of up to $34 billion -- is that the Energy Department would have to pay the operators a fee to use the MOX fuel, officials said.

Due to cost overruns and funding shortages, the White House last spring slowed construction work on the fuel facility, which is about two-thirds finished, and submitted a budget that would have eliminated construction funding starting later this year. Just over $4 billion has already been spent on the facility, according to the department's latest public estimate.

Matthew Bunn, now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, was a White House official during Bill Clinton's administration, when he helped develop the plutonium disposal program, and has followed it closely ever since. Bunn hasn't seen the latest Energy agency report, but said that the cost of the Savannah River MOX plant has spun out of control.

"The things we're trying to accomplish aren't worth that amount of money," he said Feb. 13. "To me, in an environment of extreme budget constraints and sequesters, there has got to be a better way."

One of the other alternatives MacWilliams studied was disposing the plutonium in 3-mile-deep "boreholes" drilled deep into the bedrock. A second option, officials said, was mixing the plutonium with high-level radioactive waste and storing it in a future long-term storage facility.

If oxidized plutonium is to be buried, the most likely site is the department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., a network of salt-lined caves deep underground. Doing so might require the site's expansion, several sources said, which in turn would require gaining local permission to do so. That creates some uncertainty about the political viability of that option, several sources said.

A version of this story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, ­a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

Flickr/Savannah River Site