CLEARFIELD — Hill Air Force Base is again facing criticism for the way it handles — or mishandles — materials used to arm, launch or release nuclear weapons.
This time, inspectors say the base failed to account for more than 100 nuclear-related parts in recent inventories — which could lead to undetected theft. The Air Force censored which items had been missed, but the unit involved handles nuclear missile maintenance.
Inspectors also said that when Hill officials found discrepancies in inventory data, they simply changed codes on forms without verifying actual conditions.
And the inspectors said some nuclear-weapons related items were stored in containers marked with codes for other parts, which could lead to shipping the wrong item.
That is according to Air Force Audit Agency reports written in January but just recently obtained by the Deseret News through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The problems come after an infamous mistake in 2008 when Hill sent nuclear missile parts (some warhead fuses) to Taiwan instead of the helicopter batteries that were ordered. The high-profile blunder cost the Air Force secretary and chief of staff their jobs, and 17 other generals and colonels were disciplined — including the commander at the time of Hill's Ogden Air Logistics Center.
That mistake, and other similar blunders, also led the Air Force to order a worldwide inventory of all such nuclear-weapons related materials in 2009 to resolve any problems and questions with inventories.
The Pentagon ordered auditors last year to review how well Hill's 526th Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Sustainment Group performed its part of that worldwide audit and how it is now overseeing "nuclear weapons related materials" stored or shipped through the base.
The Air Force Audit Agency wrote that the Hill unit "did not inventory all on-hand assets," "did not ensure inventory teams were properly appointed," "did not always validate inventory balances," and "assets were stored in reusable containers stenciled with outdated data that did not match the stored asset."
The report said that when Hill did its part of the 2009 worldwide inventory, it missed 107 "assets valued in excess of $2.6 million." The report was partially censored and did not list exactly what type of nuclear weapons assets were involved. The Air Force said release of that data could harm national security.
It said the parts were missed because they were "undergoing aging and surveillance testing," and such items were not included in any inventory management system. It added that identifying and recording such assets would help the Air Force track them, "thus preventing loss or theft."
Auditors also wrote that the group commander "did not ensure inventory teams were properly appointed." None of the members were appointed in writing as required, and two-thirds did not have required rank or seniority. Also, none of the "verifying officers" met criteria for being "disinterested individuals" without conflicts of interest with their regular jobs.
Amid that, auditors said teams did not always validate inventories properly. For example, "One team member physically counted assets at five locations while the second team member validated the inventory balances without performing a physical count."
Also, the report said that when teams questioned data, such as a specific serial number, "the verifying officer directed count teams to change condition code data without properly validating the asset condition."
Even after Hill had been involved in the infamous shipping of missile parts instead of helicopter batteries, auditors found that some of the missile assets were stored in reusable containers marked with outdated data that did not match the item inside.
Auditors said local officers blamed the problems on confusing and insufficient guidance and training on how to conduct the inventory.
Auditors made several recommendations, all of which Hill agreed to accept.
Corrective steps included hiring a "positive inventory control facility manager" to help prevent future problems with inventory teams by improving training; rewriting procedures; rearranging warehousing to segregate the nuclear weapons related material by condition code; and instructing workers to be more vigilant in handling and tracking materials.
After looking at the unit's responses, auditors said the "actions planned and taken should correct the problem(s)."
Auditors also looked at how the 75th Air Base Wing at Hill handled similar materials and found fewer problems.
But auditors wrote that it also failed to properly appoint inventory teams. It also said that it failed to mark items to show inventory completion to ensure that multiple teams did not count the same item.
When contacted for comment, Hill issued the following statement: "Team Hill leadership is aware of the AFAA audit reports, have followed up with appropriate officials and are continuing to track the quality with which the base performs its nuclear sustainment mission. As with any thorough, knowledgeable inspection, the AFAA audits revealed areas that need improvement.
"Now that we know what those areas are, we are concentrating on improving them. Although none of the findings show compromises in safety, security and reliability of nuclear weapons sustainment, we continue to hone our training, processes and procedures to ensure we provide the best possible support. We are committed to meeting the highest standards of safety, security and reliability all the time."
Contributing: Jamshid Ghazi Askar