Strategic Command orders review of nuclear operations

The command's inspector general has been tasked to uncover the "root causes" that played into the failing review of nuclear weapons operations at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and the eventual firings of Air Force staff, command chief Gen. Bob Kehler told lawmakers Thursday. 

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"This one in particular has my personal attention," Kehler told members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. 

"The fact that errors were made in an inspection in and of themselves doesn't trouble me much. It's what are the root causes and what are the consequences," the four-star general said of the ongoing investigation. 

The Air Force failures at Minot and the subsequent fallout has already drawn the ire of Congress. 

Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee chief Dick Durbin (R-Ill.) called the situation "unprecedented," openly questioning the service's ability to secure the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

The repeated mistakes of the service's nuclear specialists at Minot "strikes at the core of the responsibility of our chain of command,” Durbin told Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welch and service secretary Mike Donley on Wednesday. 

The circumstances that led up to the failing review at Minot was particularly striking, given the Air Force's past history of high-profile instances of mismanagement of nuclear weapons. 

Minot was one of the two Air Force bases involved in a 2008 incident where a B-52 was mistakenly loaded with live nuclear weapons during a training flight from Minot to Barksdale. 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley after the mistake, sending a clear message to service officials on the need to revamp nuclear weapons procedures. 

That said, Kehler told subpanel members he still was confident in the safety and security of the nuclear arsenal, despite the firings. 

"As I sit here today, I don't see anything that could cause me to lose confidence in that ... [Air Force] unit to perform the mission safely and effectively," Kehler said Thursday. 

The Minot review, which was run by the Air Force and not Strategic Command, was "aggressive" a clear example that service leaders had learned from the lessons of 2008, he added. 

"I do think they reacted very aggressively to the mistakes that they saw. They don't accept those mistakes," Kehler said of the service inspection at Minot. 

"I think what you're seeing here is a product of the increased scrutiny and the increased diligence that is going into these inspections and the responses to them," he added. 

To that end, Kehler told House members that an extremely high review success rate by Air Force nuclear specialists would be more of a concern to his command than this week's failed inspection. 

"I would be concerned if every unit had 100 percent passing," according to the four-star general. "I think that would suggest to me that we weren't being tough enough in inspections." 

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