Thursday, September 6, 2007

Nuclear Weapons Mistakenly Flown Over U.S.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a bomber loaded with nuclear weapons flying over U.S. soil?!?

The Military Times reported yesterday that a B-52H bomber mistakenly carried five nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles (ACMs) from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on August 30. (The Associated Press later upped this figure to six.)

The missiles, mounted onto pylons under the bomber’s wings, were being transported as a part of a Defense Department plan to decommission 400 ACMs. But the mistake wasn’t discovered until the plane landed at Barksdale, leaving them unaccounted for during the 3 ½ hour flight spanning approximately 1500 miles over multiple states.

The Air Force has since issued a statement on the incident, commenting that, “There was an error which occurred during a regularly scheduled transfer of weapons between two bases,” and that “At no time was there a threat to public safety.” It also states that they have initiated a full investigation, relieved the Munitions Squadron commander of his duties, and temporarily decertified the crews involved in loading the missiles.

Between July 1961 and January 1968, the Air Force maintained a dozen bombers loaded with nuclear weapons in the air at any time during the so-called Chrome Dome missions of Dr. Strangelove fame.

Those missions were scrapped after a B-52 carrying four thermonuclear bombs crashed on the ice off Thule Air Base in Greenland during an emergency landing. (The bombs didn’t explode, but their radioactive material was dispersed at the crash site.) The accident, which followed another crash in Spain in 1966 and several other nuclear incidents, led to the decision to ground all nuclear-armed aircraft, a policy which has stood for nearly 40 years.

For the twenty-five years that followed the Greenland incident, bombers continued to be loaded with nuclear weapons, but were kept on alert on the ground with flight crews ready to take off within minutes. The ground alert ended in September 1991 when the bombers were taken off nuclear alert and the nuclear weapons ordered to be removed from the aircraft and kept in nearby storage facilities.

But, as noted by Hans Kristensen of FAS,

Beyond the safety issue of transporting nuclear weapons in the air, the most important implication of the Minot incident is the apparent break-down of nuclear command and control for the custody of the nuclear weapons. Pilots (or anyone else) are not supposed to just fly off with nuclear bombs, and base commanders are not supposed to tell them to do so unless so ordered by higher command. In the best of circumstances the system worked, and someone “upstairs” actually authorized the transport of nuclear cruise missiles on a B-52H bomber.

He also later notes,

The really important implication is beyond the immediate: The United States is in the beginning of a transition to a deep integration of nuclear and conventional capabilities.


If the B-52 incident tells us that the military's command and control system cannot ensure with 100% certainty which weapons are nuclear and which ones are not, imagine the implications of the wrong weapon being used in a crisis or war. "Sorry Mr. President, we thought it was conventional."

I am reminded of the introductory faux-warning of Dr. Strangelove, “It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film.”


Ward said...

There's something fishy here. The Air Force making a mistake and then issuing a press release? I read that Barksdale is the jumping off point for material going to the Middle East. If you wanted to signal a very serious threat to Iran (without risking getting liberals in the US up in arms) wouldn't this "mistake" be a pretty good way of doing it?

Jeff Lindemyer said...

There is something fishy but it was in all likelihood just a mistake (albeit a tremendously serious one). I don't think there is any reason to believe any of the conspiracy talk (e.g. that it was done by Chinese cyberwarriors to prevent a war on Iran, that it was done by VP Cheney to bypass the normal chain of command to attack Iran, etc.) I do find it strange, however, that the Minot Base was transporting the ACMs to Barksdale (which is also getting rid of their ACMs), when the decommissioning of the ACMs normally happens at the Kirtland Base in New Mexico. But I don't have any reason to believe that the reason is anything conspiratorial or pernicious.

Didereaux said...

There is movement on the investigation of just how those nukes got mounted on the B52 and sent aloft. The following link sums the story up pretty well.

;) ...

Anonymous said...

well I heard that 6 of the 12 people involved have since died.... in accidents etc.... does anyone else know about this.