I do not find compelling the speculation, suggested by Larry Johnson and others, that the nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles that mistakenly ended up at Barksdale Air Force Base were being staged for an attack on Iran.

Pilots, crews and all those associated with handling nuclear weapons do make mistakes, as a casual reading of Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons will demonstrate. Indeed, the fact that the bombs sat on the tarmac for ten hours because no one quite believed that such an accident could happen will make excellent fodder for organizational theorists:

Sources in the Air Force say it took [ten hours] because the airmen who first discovered the bombs could not believe what they were seeing and had a hard time convincing superiors that the missiles on the bomber were, in fact, carrying nuclear weapons.

New Routines?

Accidents theory provides a clue as to where to look for explanations. One possibility is that the accident arose from a change in procedure. In particular, the lapse may have resulted from new or unfamiliar procedures associated with retiring the Advanced Cruise Missile.

That possibility is suggested by the original Military Times story, in which Michael Hoffman writes that “The B-52 was loaded with Advanced Cruise Missiles, part of a Defense Department effort to decommission 400 of the ACMs.” [emphasis mine.]

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell confirmed the “the munitions were part of a routine transfer between the two bases …”

Alert Levels?

New procedures for retirement, however, are not the only organizational changes that offer candidate explanations for this particular episode. Investigators and Congress should also ask whether or not the May 2004 Interim Global Strike Alert Order may have contributed to the security lapses that allowed missions crews to load six nuclear weapons on a B-52 and the pilots to fly the nuclear weapons to Louisiana.

In May 2004, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed the Interim Global Strike Alert Order. Now, STRATCOM has not made public much about this order, although General Cartwright testified that:

With close cooperation of the Air Force and Navy, SECDEF just signed the Interim Global Strike Alert Order, which provides the President a prompt, global strike capability. Today, we rely upon Navy Tomahawk missiles and Air Force bombers carrying conventional cruise missiles, Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other gravity released weapons to provide this kinetic-kill solution, and our global command and control reach.”

At the time, Bill Arkin suggested that the purpose of the order was “directing the military to assume and maintain readiness to attack hostile countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction, specifically Iran and North Korea.”

Regardless of the intention, though, orders change organizational routines. Some sense of the impact of this particular order on organizational life is evident from an interview, in the Shreveport Times, with General Bruce Carlson, then-commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale:

[Carlson completed] his third main assignment, to change the way 8th Air Force operates in order to meet new jobs given it by U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, in what are called Global Strike missions. In these, Stratcom, or the president or defense secretary, calls 8th Air Force and describes what needs to be done. And in half a day or less, it has to come up with the means and methods to do that, with surveillance and intelligence before the mission and reconnaissance after to determine the success of the operation.

“We’re now at the point where we are essentially on alert,” Carlson said. “We have the capacity to plan and execute Global Strikes on their command.”

That represents a major change in the way 8th Air Force operates, he said.

“When I got here, we were essentially a bomber command, bomber-centric. We are now still the Air Force’s bomber command, but we are so much more than that. We are Stratcom’s focal point for global strike.”

Now, as I read Carlson’s remarks, this “alert” refers largely to the mission planning features of the global strike mission. But much of the language — places I’ve marked in italics — should set off alarm bells to the interested organizational theorist.

If the order resulted in changes to operational procedures for those supporting the Air Force bombers and conventional cruise missiles, the one might expect a rise in security mishaps as well as the rare newsworthy lapse like the one we saw this week.

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Of course, these two suggested areas of inquiry — the effect of the planned retirement of the ACM and organizational changes to support global strike — are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the effect of two significant organizational changes in three years could be quite a bit greater than the sum of the individual impact.

Heads are going to roll — officers will lose promising careers, regular guys will get the blame. This process has already started, with the squadron commander in charge of Minot’s munitions crews.

If I have one bit of advice to Secretary Gates, it is this: Call an organizational theorist, like Charles Perrow, or a like-minded political scientists, like Scott Sagan, immediately.

Apportioning blame reassures the public and makes you look tough. But, if this accident represents a broader organizational pathology rather than mere negligence, disciplinary actions won’t solve the problem any more than screaming at someone who is sick.