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Air Force's nuclear focus has dimmed, studies find

Disasters and AccidentsTransportation DisastersAir Transportation DisastersDefenseArmed ForcesUnrest, Conflicts and WarNuclear Weapons

The U.S. military has lost focus on its nuclear-weapons mission and has suffered a sharp decline in nuclear expertise, factors that may have contributed to a mishap last year in which a B-52 bomber unknowingly carried six nuclear warheads across the country, according to two new independent reviews.

Both studies found that levels of nuclear training and alertness at the Air Force slipped after the end of the Cold War. But one of the reports was much more critical, saying accidents far worse than the errant B-52 flight could occur without immediate changes in nuclear procedures.

"The task force and several of the senior [Defense Department] people interviewed believe that the decline in focus has been more pronounced than realized and too extreme to be acceptable," said the report compiled by an outside panel chaired by retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch.

Both reviews were ordered after the August bomber flight, in which Air Force weapons officers accidentally loaded the B-52 in North Dakota with nuclear weapons.

The bombs were flown to an air base in Louisiana the following day, where they were eventually discovered and belatedly secured.

Dozens of officers have been either disciplined or relieved of command, but the Welch report's findings raise new questions about whether failures within the Air Force were more systemic than originally believed. The first Air Force investigation into the incident, completed in October, pinned much of the blame on individual officers at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Neither Welch's study nor an internal Air Force review, conducted by Maj. Gen. Polly A. Peyer, found any failures in the security of U.S. nuclear weapons. But at a Capitol Hill hearing, Welch testified that the military units responsible for handling the bombs are not properly inspected and, as a result, may not be ready to perform their missions.

"We have uncovered no safety issues," Welch said. "If you look at all the areas and all the ways that we have to store and handle these weapons in order to perform the mission, it just requires, we believe, more resources and more attention than they're getting."

Both studies could put new pressure on Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, to reorganize the service's nuclear forces.

After the Cold War, the once-vaunted Strategic Air Command, which controlled all Air Force nuclear weapons, was dismantled. The military's nuclear missiles were assigned to a division responsible for operations in space, and its nuclear bombers were moved to Air Combat Command, which also includes nonnuclear fighters and reconnaissance aircraft.

Although the internal Air Force review has not been made public, a copy of its executive summary obtained by The Times asserts that the split organization has led to fragmentation of policies and accountability, without a single commander responsible for nuclear missions.

In an interview, Peyer, who headed the 30-person internal review, said that her report does not specifically recommend re-creating the Strategic Air Command, and she warned against attempting to go back to Cold War polices with a nuclear force that is now much smaller than in the 1980s.

"We can't go back to where we were in 1991," Peyer said. "We don't live in the same world. It's not the same environment."

However, the Welch report is highly critical of the split commands. The report concludes that combining nuclear forces with nonnuclear organizations has led to "markedly reduced levels of leadership whose daily focus is the nuclear enterprise and a general devaluation of the nuclear mission and those who perform the mission."

Welch's report was completed at the request of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has already raised concerns with Air Force officials that the original investigation into the B-52 incident may have unfairly limited blame to midlevel officers. The internal Air Force investigation was ordered by Moseley.

Air Force officials said they are already implementing many of the recommendations in both reports but insisted that existing regulations governing nuclear procedures were adequate.

Testifying alongside Welch, Lt. Gen. Daniel J. Darnell, the Air Force's head of operations, said that while Peyer's blue-ribbon commission showed that the service could improve its nuclear programs, the underlying policies and procedures were validated.

"The Air Force portion of the nuclear deterrent is sound, and we will take every measure necessary to provide safe, secure, reliable nuclear surety to the American public," Darnell said.

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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