USA Today reported on Wednesday that “that five nuclear warheads were transported,” by a B-52 bomber “from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30.” WTF?
The officers who first tipped the “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 of nuclear warheads 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 and one-half 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 investigation. 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.
Critics were not “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.
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.”
The Defense Department uses a computerized tracking program to keep tabs on each one of its nuclear warheads, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. 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 have to have been ignored to load the warheads onto the plane, he said.
“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.”
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 Air Force takes its mission to safeguard weapons seriously,” Thomas said. “No effort will be spared to ensure that the matter is thoroughly and completely investigated.”
“This is really shocking,” Coyle said. “The Air Force can’t tolerate it, and the Pentagon can’t tolerate it, either.”
Larry Johnson weighs in on No Quarter:
Now maybe there is an innocent explanation for this? I can’t think of one. What is certain is that the pilots of this plane did not just make a last minute decision to strap on some nukes and take them for a joy ride. We need some tough questions and clear answers. What the hell is going on? Did someone at Barksdale try to indirectly warn the American people that the Bush Administration is staging nukes for Iran? I don’t know, but it is a question worth asking.