Friday, September 21, 2007

One Mistake Too Many

In a moment of shameless self-promotion, I'm including below an op-ed that I wrote on the recent B-52 debacle which appeared today on openDemocracy.

One mistake too many
A slip-up in nuclear weapons controls in the United States is cause for global concern

Much to the disbelief of military officials and nuclear experts, on 30 August an American B-52 bomber accidentally carried six nuclear-armed cruise missiles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The accident demonstrates a dangerous breakdown in United States Air Force command and control and represents the most high-profile breach of nuclear weapons safety protocol in nearly 40 years.

The incident is chilling because it shows that, despite rigorous safeguards, accidents involving nuclear weapons can still happen. It calls into question the wisdom of keeping thousands of nuclear devices on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched at a moment's notice - a policy the United States and other countries currently maintain.

Protocol ignored

Assuming that the B-52 really was mistakenly loaded (and some conspiracy theorists won't even concede that), numerous important security measures were either overlooked or ignored altogether. Each of the six nuclear-armed missiles should have been signed out from its storage bunker, transported by ground, and then loaded onto the bomber, a process that requires strict adherence to several safety protocols. Multiple layers of the chain of command should have been involved.

Large red markings on the nuclear-armed missiles should have made them easy to distinguish from the six unarmed missiles loaded under the B-52's other wing. The weight difference between the two missile types should also have tipped off the flight and munitions crews, who have loaded dozens of these missiles and even won two service-wide safety awards in 2006 for their work. The munitions crews involved have since been temporarily decertified and the commander relieved of his duties.

Especially troubling is that once the missiles arrived in Louisiana, they were not retrieved or even identified as being nuclear-tipped for nearly ten hours. The delay was caused by the inability of the airmen who first discovered the missiles to realise and, more importantly, convince their superiors that they were actually carrying live nuclear warheads.

Compounding this further was that several officers at the Pentagon didn't take the "Bent Spear" message - Defense Department code for this kind of mistake - coming from the Minot base seriously, thinking instead that the message had been sent in error. Including the B-52's three and a half hour flight, the nuclear-armed missiles were loose for approximately 13 hours.

Cause for concern

The Minot incident raises serious concerns about the security measures associated with nuclear weapons. If such a major error could happen once, it could happen again. It may even have happened before without the American ever public finding out.

More frightening are the wider implications of the Minot episode. If an accident of this magnitude could happen in the United States, which has some of the most stringent controls over its nuclear weapons in the world, something similar could very well happen in other countries with weaker controls. What if nuclear-tipped missiles were mistakenly flown to Pakistan's Samungli Air Force Base, where they might sit vulnerable on a tarmac not far from al-Qaida's training camps in northwest Pakistan?

The B-52 incident also goes to the heart of a bigger question. The US currently maintains a nuclear arsenal of nearly 10,000 warheads, thousands of which stand on hair-trigger alert. If six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly sent across the country, despite elaborate safety protocols, the most devastating mistake imaginable remains possible: an accidental or unauthorized launch of submarine or land-based nuclear missiles.

Faced with accidental or unauthorised incoming American nuclear missiles, Russia, China, or some other nuclear power would have to quickly decide whether or not to retaliate. What started as a mistake could soon mushroom into a nuclear exchange between global superpowers.

This is a gloomy scenario, and steps have been taken to mitigate the risk of an accidental launch, but the B-52 incident shows that mistakes can and do happen. The US should give itself some breathing room by leading an international effort to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. After all, when it comes to nuclear weapons, one error is one too many.

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