Honing the Nuclear Sword The Air Force and LANL Keeping Each Other Sharp

The end of the Cold War, in 1991, brought much relief to a world economically and psychologically exhausted from more than four decades of nuclear tensions and proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union.

One unforeseen consequence, however, of being able to somewhat “stand down” became readily apparent in 2006 and again in 2007. As the clear and present danger of the Soviet Union diminished, so too did the Air Force’s usually razorsharp focus on duty and detail regarding one prime mission: to steward, maintain, and operate its portion of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

In 2006, the Air Force mistakenly shipped four nonnuclear nose cone assemblies for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with the cones’ associated electrical components, to Taiwan. Then in 2007, a B-52 bomber based at Minot Air Force Base (AFB) in North Dakota was unwittingly flown to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana with six cruise missiles onboard—armed with nuclear warheads. Referred to with black humor as “the unfortunate flight,” this event in particular awoke Air Force leadership to the fact that the Air Force had been, well, napping while on guard duty.

The Air Force’s response was swift and wide-ranging, and it is ongoing. To prevent a “culture of complacency” from ever developing again, the Air Force continues to seek out new and better ways to improve its vigilance and operations.

For example, in April of this year representatives from the Air Force Inspection Agency (AFIA), based at Kirkland AFB in Albuquerque, New Mexico, visited Los Alamos National Laboratory for the purpose of improving the Air Force’s partnership with LANL regarding nuclear weapons. Los Alamos designed and developed the B61 gravity bomb and the W78 warhead used in ICBMs, the nuclear weapons systems the Air Force is charged with safely and securely overseeing—and operating if need be. AFIA, which reports to the Secretary of the Air Force Inspector General, is the primary tool used by the Air Force to inspect and assess what the Air Force calls the “nuclear surety” of its piece of the nation’s “nuclear enterprise.”

“The Air Force is transforming its entire nuclear inspection system— our system of nuclear surety—as part of continuing to strengthen the nuclear weapons enterprise,” says Colonel Paul W. Tibbets IV, commander of AFIA. “By better understanding what transpires at the beginning of the enterprise—the science and engineering that goes into making nuclear weapons, which is LANL’s contribution— the Air Force is better able to do its job, which encompasses the end of that enterprise.”

Tibbets continues, “Dealing with nuclear weapons is a unique and special duty that must be performed with exceptional care. Our airmen never take for granted the knowledge and skills required to properly maintain and employ these weapons or understand what makes them tick. Having a strong sense of pride in our history and military capabilities instills excellence in our work. With the knowledge gained through our partnerships, like with LANL, we can advance our tactics, techniques, and procedures in the spirit of being stronger, better, and more eff ective.”

“There are a wide variety of technical experts assigned to AFIA,” he adds. “Sharing information and learning from each other is in everyone’s best interest. Perspectives gained through collaboration expand each person’s toolkit, and learning is multiplied when aircrews, ICBM launch officers, technicians, and inspectors share knowledge with their friends and colleagues in the course of doing business.”

In addition to rebuilding the entire nuclear inspection system and conducting nuclear inspections, AFIA is responsible for training all Air Force nuclear surety inspectors and conducting its periodic audits. The LANL visit gave the AFIA team the opportunity to learn about new science and technology that will be of value in conducting nuclear surety inspections and training inspectors.

LANL’s role in the nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) is to advance the science and technology needed to keep weapons systems operating reliably into the future. It is important for the Air Force to understand how projects and activities managed by LANL may affect what its operators do and how surety inspections may need to flex to better support the SSP. It is a give-and-take relationship with information that flows both ways.

“We have the opportunity to tell scientists and engineers at LANL what we’d like to see changed on weapons systems to make it easier for airmen out in the field who have to maintain and operate them. We want the LANL folks to think about things like the ergonomics that pertain to the movement, operation, and maintenance of LANL’s weapons systems,” says Tibbets.

The Air Force needs the Laboratory to help it stay sharp. But it’s a two-edged sword. As iron sharpens iron, so we sharpen each other. The Lab needs us to help it retain its edge, too.

For example, Los Alamos staff regularly use computers when designing and engineering weapons systems. While some of the weapon’s characteristics make perfect sense on a computer, from a physics design or engineering perspective, the weapon’s deployment can raise real-world, unanticipated difficulties. “Our inspectors watch the technicians while they work on these weapons systems. What the AFIA team brings to the Laboratory is eye opening. We help the designers and engineers see the challenges a 19- or 20-year-old airman may face when operating or maintaining the actual weapon inside a cramped missile silo or in the bomb bay of a nuclearcapable bomber, when it’s 20 degrees below or 115 degrees above zero.”

“When it comes to stewarding our nuclear weapons, the Air Force needs the Laboratory to help it stay sharp. But it’s a two-edged sword,” Tibbets says. “As iron sharpens iron, so LANL and AFIA can sharpen each other. The Lab needs us to help it retain its edge too.”

photoelectron injector

Colonel Paul W. Tibbets IV is the grandson of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr., who piloted the Enola Gay and dropped the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. (Photo: LANL)

Opening photo: Director Charles McMillan and Colonel Paul W. Tibbets IV, commander of the AFIA exchange “challenge” coins representing their organizations. (Photo: LANL)

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