Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Now Where Did I Put Those ICBM Parts? (Updated)

Apparently, the Department of Defense is about as careful with its classified nuclear/missile technology as it is with a pair of house keys. From the LA Times:

U.S. officials said today that non-nuclear parts for an intercontinental ballistic missile were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan in 2006 and that an investigation had been started.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said at a Pentagon news conference that the items sent to Taiwan were four electrical fuses for nose cone assemblies for ICBMs. Wynne said the fuses have been returned and are at a U.S. base.

"It could not be construed as being nuclear material," Wynne said. "It is a component for the fuse in the nose cone for a nuclear system. We are all taking this very seriously."

The government of China views Taiwan as a part of China and strongly opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, making the matter particularly sensitive.

According to Wynne, the fuses were shipped between Air Force bases in 2005 before they were mistakenly sent to Taiwan the following year.
Back in August of 2007, another nuclear mix-up resulted in 6 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles being reported missing. They were later found to have been mistakenly transfered across the United States from North Dakota to Louisiana. At the time, the Air Force blamed the foul-up on a minor lapse in procedure and a total lack of focus on nuclear weapons.

Taken together, these two failures point to the fact that even the United States cannot ensure the safety of such a large stockpile of nuclear weapons. No matter how careful our procedures or how many people are fired after these screwups, the small scale reviews of policy and procedure that the DoD undertakes will never prevent this type of lax behavior from repeating itself once the fervor from this latest event dies down. How bad are these events going to have to get before the government realizes that it isn't just the procedures or the personnel that are at issue here?

Oh, and one last thing. Is it strange to anyone else that it took the Taiwanese military a year and a half to let our people know about the error? I don't know about you, but the picture above doesn't quite look like a helicopter battery. But then again, given the large amount of arms sales to Taiwan each year, perhaps they don't open every crate right away. It is vital for the investigation into this incident to clearly state why it took so long for Taiwan to notify the U.S. of this error. The level of transparency of this investigation will do much to determine exactly how China reacts to this situation.

Further reports state that the Taiwanese let the Department of Defense know more than a year ago that what they had received was not helicopter batteries. It seems that folks at the DoD dragged their feet on figuring out exactly what is was and didn't confirm the equipment ID number until last week. These facts seem to even further implicate the very poor organizational structure at DoD made evident by the first nuclear mistake at Minot last year. Jeffrey Lewis over at ArmsControlWonk.com had a very good write-up on this problem during that previous crisis. It seems a proper time to resurrect that discussion and possibly actually do something about it this time.

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