[Vision2020] Commander Disciplined for Nuclear Mistake
thansen at moscow.com
Fri Sep 7 05:48:29 PDT 2007
Whether the transport of six nuclear warheads from one location to another
is rightfully or wrongfully interpreted, this act has been reported as an
accident and those personnel involved disciplined.
The obvious question: How, with so many safeguards, could six nuclear
warheads be "mistakenly" shipped from one location to another?
>From the Army Times -
Commander disciplined for nuclear mistake
By Michael Hoffman - Army Times Staff writer
The Air Force continued handing out disciplinary actions in response to the
six nuclear warheads mistakenly flown on a B-52 Stratofortress bomber from
Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30.
The squadron commander in charge of Minot's munitions crews was relieved of
all duties pending the investigation.
It was originally reported that five nuclear warheads were transported, but
officers who tipped Military Times to the incident who have asked to remain
anonymous since they are not authorized to discuss the incident, have since
updated that number to six.
Air Force and defense officials would not confirm the missiles were armed
with nuclear warheads Wednesday, citing longstanding policy, but they did
confirm the Air Force was "investigating an error made last Thursday during
the transfer of munitions" from Minot to Barksdale.
The original plan was to transport non-nuclear Advanced Cruise Missiles,
mounted on the wings of a B-52, to Barksdale as part of a Defense Department
effort to decommission 400 of the ACMs. It was not discovered that the six
missiles had nuclear warheads until the plane landed at Barksdale, leaving
the warheads unaccounted for during the approximately 3 1/2 hour flight
between the two bases, the officers said.
President Bush was immediately alerted to the mistake and the Air Force
launched a service-wide investigation headed by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg,
director of Air and Space Operations at Air Combat Command Headquarters,
said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Ed Thomas.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has requested daily briefings from Air
Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley on the progress of the probe. Sen.
Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Appropriations defense
subcommittee, requested a full classified briefing, not just the preliminary
information being provided to lawmakers, to explain how a mistake of this
magnitude could have happened.
Thomas said the transfer was conducted safely and the American public was
never in any danger since the weapons were in Air Force custody and control
at all times.
But few critics were placated Wednesday by the Air Force's reassurances.
"Nothing like this has ever been reported before and we have been assured
for decades that it was impossible," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass,
co-chair of the House Bi-partisan Task Force.
Non-proliferation treaty experts said the Air Force didn't violate any
international nuclear treaties by transporting the nuclear warheads on the
B-52, but it was the first time since 1968 that it's been known publicly
that nuclear warheads were transported on a U.S. bomber.
After six nuclear-armed B-52s crashed from 1959-1968, the Defense Department
ordered all bombers off nuclear airborne alert. The policy change occurred
after a B-52 crashed in Greenland in January 1968, dropping three nuclear
warheads on the island and one into the ocean.
As a gesture to Russia and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the first
Bush administration took it one step farther in 1991 by ordering all bombers
to halt nuclear ground alerts, which allowed bomber crews to practice
loading a nuclear warhead, but never taking off with one.
The Defense Department does transport nuclear warheads by air, but instead
of bombers it uses C-17 or C-130 cargo aircraft.
"These reports are deeply disturbing," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo.,
chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "The American people, our
friends, and our potential adversaries must be confident that the highest
standards are in place when it comes to our nuclear arsenal."
Nuclear weapon experts said they were shocked to find out how completely
command and control over the six nuclear warheads failed to allow such a
mistake to occur.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the
Federation of American Scientists, said a host of security checks and
warning signs must have been passed over, or completely ignored, for the
warheads to have been unknowingly loaded onto the B-52.
ACMs are specifically designed to carry a W80-1 nuclear warhead with a yield
of 5 to 150 kilotons and delivered by B-52 strategic bombers.
"It's not like they had nuclear ACMs and conventional ACMs right next to
each other and they just happened to load one with a nuclear warhead,"
The Defense Department uses a computerized tracking program to keep tabs on
each one of its nuclear warheads, he said. For the six warheads to make it
onto the B-52, each one would have had to be signed out of its storage
bunker and transported to the bomber. Diligent safety protocols would then
have had to been ignored to load the warheads onto the plane, Kristensen
All ACMs loaded with a nuclear warhead have distinct red signs
distinguishing them from ACMs without a nuclear yield, he said. ACMs with
nuclear warheads also weigh significantly more than missiles without them.
"I just can't imagine how all of this happened," said Philip Coyle, a senior
adviser on nuclear weapons at the Center for Defense Information. "The
procedures are so rigid; this is the last thing that's supposed to happen."
The risk of the warheads falling into the hands of rogue nations or
terrorists was minimal since the weapons never left the United States, said
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an
independent research and policy think tank in Washington D.C.
At no time was there a risk for a nuclear detonation, even if the B-52
crashed on its way to Barksdale, said Steve Fetter, a former Defense
Department official who worked on nuclear weapons policy in 1993-94. A crash
would ignite the high explosives associated with the warhead, and possibly
cause a leak of plutonium, but the warhead's elaborate safeguards would
prevent a nuclear detonation from occurring, he said.
"The main risk would have been the way the Air Force responded to any
problems with the flight because they would have handled it much differently
if they would have known nuclear warheads were onboard," Fetter said.
It's still unclear specifically how the B-52's flight from Minot to
Barksdale would have been different since most nuclear security protocols
are classified. But, Kristensen said the flight pattern might have been
different since there would have been airspace restrictions. Also, security
at both airports would have heightened considerably and the communications
between the pilot and the control towers would have been altered, he said.
Air Combat Command will have a command-wide mission stand-down Sept. 14 to
review its procedures in response to the mistake. Even units without
oversight of nuclear weapons will take part in the stand-down, Thomas said.
"The Air Force takes its mission to safeguard weapons seriously," he said.
"No effort will be spared to ensure that the matter is thoroughly and
Along with the 5th Munitions Squadron commander, the munitions crews
involved in mistakenly loading the nuclear warheads at Minot have been
temporarily decertified from performing their duties involving munitions,
pending corrective actions or additional training, Thomas said.
The error comes after the Air Force announced last March the 5th Bomb Wing
won two service-wide safety awards during fiscal year 2006.
"This is really shocking," Coyle said. "The Air Force can't tolerate it, and
the Pentagon can't tolerate it, either."
Seeya round town, Moscow.
"People who ridicule others while hiding behind anonymous monikers in
chat-room forums are neither brave nor clever."
- Latah County Sheriff Wayne Rausch (August 21, 2007)
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