By Tony Capaccio
The U.S. Air Force’s property accounting system overstates by 105 the number of assembled nuclear missiles in service, according to congressional investigators and Air Force documents.
The system doesn’t distinguish between a complete Minuteman III, a partially assembled intercontinental ballistic missile or a spare stage-one missile motor, said an Air Force “Financial Improvement Plan” evaluated by the Government Accountability Office.
The Air Force system indicates 555 Minuteman IIIs; the actual number is 450. The additional 105 are disassembled one- stage boosters that could be assembled into complete missiles, according Air Force records.
The discrepancy doesn’t mean a loss of operational control or not knowing the location of armed nuclear weapons, the service’s top spokesman, Brigadier General Les Kodlick said.
Still, the Air Force acknowledges the deficiency “must be corrected before military equipment can be ready for audit,” GAO said in a report scheduled for release today. The Air Force says it’s fixing the system so that it automatically distinguishes and separately notes disassembled missiles, according to GAO.
There are “serious failings of the Department of Defense’s current accounting and finance systems,” said Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the Democratic chairman of the Homeland Security Committee financial management panel, in a statement to Bloomberg News.
“If the Air Force accounting and inventory systems can’t accurately count the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles in its possession, it’s fair to question whether the Air Force and other military services can count other, more common and more numerous assets like tanks, parts and rifles,” Carper said. “This is deeply troubling.”
Carper is convening a hearing today to examine the Pentagon’s progress in meeting a congressional mandate to get its books into shape for auditing by 2017 -- an issue that’s been unresolved for at least 15 years.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, asked yesterday about the report, said 2017 wasn’t fast enough.
“As we go through these budget reductions, I think we’ve got to be able to have auditing,” he said. “I have got to be able to say to the American people that we are accountable for their tax dollars, and that means that we have to have the ability to audit our books.”
‘Aggressive’ Management Needed
Senate panel member Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, said in a e-mail he was pleased with Panetta’s stance. “These reports highlight the need for an aggressive chief management officer,” he said.
The GAO since 1995 has flagged the Pentagon’s financial management system “because of its inability to ensure accountability,” Coburn said.
Air Force spokesman Kodlick, in an e-mail statement, said service managers are “closely engaged with the GAO and defense officials as we work to fully define the specialized accounting rules that will be applied to various weapons systems.”
“Even though financial accounting rules are under discussion, the Air Force maintains 100 percent operational accountability and control for ICBMs and other vital military equipment,” Kodlick said. “This has been a major area of focus for Air Force leaders for the last several years.”
The Air Force is especially sensitive to nuclear weapons issues. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in June 2008 fired the Air Force secretary and its top general over real and perceived lapses in nuclear security. A B-52 bomber in 2007 flew across the U.S. carrying six cruise missiles mistakenly armed with nuclear warheads, and parts that arm nuclear explosives were erroneously shipped to Taiwan.
The GAO reports there has been progress toward setting the basic ground-rules and additional steps the services must follow to prepare for 2017 audits.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, for example, issued in May 2010 a standard “Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness” plan that “provides a reasonable methodology” for organizations to follow when preparing their individual plans.
Still, the GAO examined Navy Civilian Pay and Air Force Military Equipment plans that followed the guidance and found they contained “unsupportable conclusions.”
The Air Force system also “is not yet able to properly count its many assets and keep track of its inventory,” including Minuteman IIIs, GAO said. “Air Force officials indicated they didn’t expect to complete this corrective action until” Sept. 30, 2012, GAO said.
Carper called the ICBM flaw “alarming” because “this could affect the Air Force’s ability to properly plan for maintenance, and purchase of spare parts in a timely and cost- effective manner.”
ICBM totals vary up to a maximum of 450 because missiles are rotated through their maintenance cycles, according to the Air Force.