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U.S. Air Force gives failing grade to Montana nuclear unit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Air Force inspection of a Montana base found errors that resulted in a failing grade for the nuclear missile unit, the latest in a series of issues involving the Air Force's management of nuclear weapons, authorities said on Tuesday.

The failed inspection at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana does not pose any safety risks to the U.S. nuclear, Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Lieutenant General Jim Kowalski said in a statement.

The August 5-13 evaluation of the 341st Missile Wing covered operations, maintenance, security, safety and support activities and received unsatisfactory rating after making "tactical-level errors during one of several exercises," the statement said.

Carla Pampe, chief of civic outreach and internal information for Air Force Global Strike Command, told Reuters the Air Force does not release details of the inspection results in view of "operational security considerations."

But she said such unsatisfactory results during mandatory inspections conducted every two years are not unheard of and do not imply "the safety of the nation's nuclear enterprise is in jeopardy" and the finding is used to improve practices.

"Inspections have been passed and failed for decades," Pampe said in an e-mail from the command headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

"Commanders use inspection results and reports to adjust focus and resources as needed to ensure forces are combat ready, safe, secure and effective at all times," she added.

The Air Force has sought to tighten controls over its nuclear weapons after a 2008 incident in which a B-52 bomber accidentally transported nuclear armed missiles across the country, leading to the ouster of then-Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and General T. Michael Moseley, the top uniformed officer in the Air Force.

The 341st Missile Wing, based at Malmstrom, operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) - one third of the country's missile wings. The other two wings are at bases in Wyoming and North Dakota.

"These inspections are designed to be tough to pass," Kowalski said in the statement.

Pampe said Tuesday's inspection result will be followed by retraining of the unit in the "deficient area" and a follow-on inspection within 90 days by the Air Force Global Strike's inspector general team.

(Reporting by Paul Eckert and Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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