"No press interest anticipated."

The Washington Post has a deeply disturbing article on the six wayward nuclear cruise missiles of a few weeks ago. A cascading chain of not followed safety procedures led to the nuclear missiles to be loaded onto a B-52 bomber and flown unnoticed across the country in direct violation of 40 years of national policy.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, it appears that risk management had become routine and therefore incredibly sloppy, even though weapons of mass destruction were involved. If some rightly worried military personnel had not leaked the episode to the Military Times, the whole thing may have never seen the light of day. The US Air Force even thought that the event was not going to cause much of public furor, hence "No press interest anticipated." I think the Air Force Public Affairs Office needs a bit of a reality check if they thought that loose nukes were a non-public interest item.

From a risk management standpoint, what irritates me most is that this was a classic "predictable surprise." The article describes how that the Air Force was warned in 1998 of "diminished attention for even 'the minimum standards' of nuclear weapons' maintenance, support and security;" the Air Force Inspector General found in 2003 found that half of the "nuclear surety" inspections conducted that year resulted in failing grades, the worst performance in probably 50 or more years; and; in 2006, the Air Force eliminated a separate nuclear-operations directorate known informally as the N Staff, which closely tracked the maintenance and security of nuclear weapons in the United States and other NATO countries.

The Air Force claims that the N Staff functions were still being done by other Air Force units, but I doubt that these other units viewed their newly acquired mission as a high priority, given the daily stress of dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Associated Press reported that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has asked for an outside review of the incident by the Defense Science Board be conducted on top of the one being conducted internally by the Air Force. While the outside review is said not to be a reflection on whether the Air Force will conduct an honest review, it is hard to read it as other than a "trust, but verify" decision.

PS - Happy 60th Anniversary to the US Air Force.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City