Commander disciplined for nuclear mistake
By Michael Hoffman - Staff writer | September 5, 2007
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,” Kristensen said.
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 said.
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 completely investigated.”
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 servicewide 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.”