Inexcusable Negligence at Minot AFB

800pxagm129a__050323f1234p015 "Air Force weapons officers assigned to secure nuclear warheads failed on five occasions to examine a bundle of cruise missiles headed to a B-52 bomber in North Dakota, leading the plane’s crew to unknowingly fly six nuclear-armed missiles across the country.

That August flight, the first known incident in which the military lost track of its nuclear weapons since the dawn of the atomic age, lasted nearly three hours, until the bomber landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in northern Louisiana.

But according to an Air Force investigation presented to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Friday, the nuclear weapons sat on a plane on the runway at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota for nearly 24 hours without ground crews noticing the warheads had been moved out of a secured shelter.

"This was an unacceptable mistake," said Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne at a Pentagon news conference. "We would really like to ensure it never happens again.""  Spiegel in the LA Times


Let’s say that during the three hour flight from North Dakota to Louisiana there had occurred an in flight emergency, perhaps a loss of some number of engines.  Let us say that the aircraft commander decided in such an emergency to lighten the load by jettisoning things that were not permanently attached to the airplane.  Presumably the first to go would have been things that did not have rocket motors or explosives attached.  After that….  Well ,in the midst of an emergency, losing power and altitude would the aircraft CO not have considered "dumping" these cruise missiles over what – Kansas, maybe?  After all, he did not know that these were nuclear weapons..

The government will always assure the public in incidents like this that the weapon could not detonate.   It is certainly unlikely, but the vagaries of impact of such a machine on the earth makes that less than totally reassuring.  At the very least, the fissile material in the weapons could be spread around in a dangerous way, and then, there is the possibility of a less than full yield detonation in a variety of ways.

The USAF and Navy kept a tight grip on these instruments of the devil for all the period of the Cold War.  This awful example of neglect of duty and inattention to detail is appalling in its illustration of the dangers of complacency.  pl,1,2808037.story?coll=la-headlines-nation

This is the warhead involved.

The description of the warhead assures that the possibility of a nuclear detonation in an accident is "minimal."

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38 Responses to Inexcusable Negligence at Minot AFB

  1. John Moore says:

    Yeah, but the conventional high explosives used to create the implosion could still detonate and spread the weapons grade uranium or plutonium around the immediate area and possibly enter the ground water. Aren’t we still paying Spain for the site we contaminated due to that B-52 “Broken Spear” incident in the late 1950’s-early 60’s?

  2. Tuli says:

    I just find it totally inconceivable that there is this level of incompetence in any organization. Someone somewhere would have caught this. Every institution that I have worked in, and most have been incompetent whether public or private, has someone who catches and points out the mistakes. And usually the mistakes and/or incompetence are passed over for some “political” reason.
    What was the “political” reason here?
    Call me a member of the “I Ain’t Buying it Choir” (reference to Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.)
    JMHO. Call me a wackjob!

  3. J says:

    do we have a three card monte going on in front of our faces by the bush admin. regarding this? as in the bush admin. attempting to convince both the citiznery and media that the nuke incident was similar to a stockroom mistake at a wal-mart. nuke armed missles ‘mistakenly’ removed from a storage bunker and then ‘erroneously’ mounted on the wings of the b52, which happened to be ‘mistakenly’ identified on the flight manifest, and then flown across the u.s. for three hours and sat on barksdale’s tarmac for ‘several hours’ without anybody taking notice. so what we have are 6 nukes ‘unaccounted for’ through a chain of command that stretched through a csaf, acc, wing cc, a squadron cc, a munitions maintenance squadron, the bomb wing’s do, the b52’s crew chief, its left seater command pilot a/c, and then onto another af base’s tarmac without notice of that base’s chain of command — for 10 hours.
    i cannot accept their premise that 70 airmen decided to move nukes on their ‘own schedule’ and outside the safety/security parameters set forth. the ‘story’ that dod/csaf/acc are giving to the public and congress IMO is nothing more than smoke-screen BS with a capital ‘B’.

  4. raincat100 says:

    I’m not buying it either.
    What’s really going on…?
    Winter Patriot
    David Lindorff

  5. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Nah! You folks all think there is some point to history. Nah! Stuff happens. You grossly underestimate the human capacity for ineptitude, laziness amd incompetence.
    The Bushies don’t need any kind of subterfuge to do anything they want with nukes. A few generals and amirals will resign first? So what. There wil be plecty more who will do what they are told. pl

  6. CSTAR says:

    Well PL you do have a point: Stuff happens and incompetence abounds. Thinking of historical processes as physical processes is hopeless.
    But conversely, I also have lived through enough coups (some visible only weeks later, in which military actions consist mainly of weighted counts of hardware on each side, probably a more sensible way of dispute resolution then projectile-based persuasion) to make me very distrustful of these explanations.
    I fear one morning waking up to a radio broadcast to the nation by His Excellency Richard B. Cheney.

  7. Robert Haskell says:

    As an illustration of just how Col Lang’s scenario could happen, a nuclear-armed B-47 was involved in a mid-air collision with a fighter near Savannah, Ga. in, I believe, the late 50s. The pilot jettisoned the bomb and was able to land, and since the bomb wasn’t armed, it didn’t explode (though it’s still somewhere a mile or so off Tybee Island).

  8. Martin K says:

    Sir. I dont want to buy into conspiranoia, but what I dont understand is this, from Air Force Times:
    “…On the morning of Aug. 29, airmen assigned to the Minot weapons storage area were supposed to pick up and transport two pylons to a B-52 assigned to Barksdale. Each pylon is a self-contained package of six cruise missiles that can be quickly mounted to the wing of a Stratofortress. But the pylon had not been properly prepared, and the airmen failed to examine all the warheads on the missiles mounted to the pylons.”
    How is it possible that a nuclear pylon could get “mixed up” with conventional ones? Are they stored together? I would assume that a multitude of forms would have to be signed before anyone being allowed to touch a nuke? I dont understand how this “mixup” could happen? How did the nukes get into the pylons? hmmm

  9. Cujo359 says:

    I don’t know what a plum assignment would be in the Air Force these days, but I’m pretty sure it’s not minding a bunch of old nukes in North Dakota. To put it mildly, the Air Force’s best people aren’t likely to accumulate there. More likely are the kinds of folks who just want to do their remaining time and leave. Put enough of them in one spot, and I suspect anything is possible.
    This is a nearly inconceivable level of incompetence even given that assumption, but I still think it’s likelier than some whacky form of saber rattling by the Bushies. They have plenty of sabers to rattle without resorting to this. Considering the misuse they’ve put the military to lately, ruining some careers in the service of a stunt like this wouldn’t be a smart move even by their low standards.

  10. charlottemom says:

    I have followed this issue and looked at it (with the limited facts presented via the media) from different points until my head hurts. I’m somewhere between deliberate pysops for Iran’s benefit and rouge group intent on moving nukes for nefarious purposes (and got caught). Call me a looney but the “incompetent” storyline doesn’t ring true. Maybe, maybe “incompetent like a fox” (hence psyops theory). God help us.

  11. Greg says:

    I concur with the view that “stuff happens” but the mendaciousness of the Bushies, combined with the sheer incompetency of this event, leads to a few raised eyebrows. That said, the analyses you’ve provided of the culture of the U.S. military does not lend itself to the view that many of our military leaders have the professional qualities one would desire. Am I wrong?

  12. Charles I says:

    Surely this demonstrates the pressing need for more outsourcing. Fortunately, it appears Blackwater will soon be repatriating many many highly experienced, high maintenance security professionals, freeing up the airmen for alternate, dustier deployment

  13. Richard Armstrong says:

    COL Lang,
    Perhaps you could tell me if the following statements from another blog are true?
    1. For nuclear tipped missiles to be mounted into launch position on a combat platform (B-52) the D.O.D custody regulations require a signature from the White House.
    2. It is a violation of a litany of national security regulations to release a story involving “treaty regulated” transport of nuclear weapons. It is NOT done. The first publication to carry the report was the Military Times, from there it spread to the wire services. THIS IS NEVER DONE.
    Right now, I just don’t know what to think. Is it more frightening, that the Air Force lost track of some nukes or that Air Force officers possibly “mutinied” by releasing the information to the press.
    Thank you.
    Richard Armstrong

  14. W. Patrick Lang says:

    That all sounds like hogwash to me.
    What blog was that? pl

  15. vincente says:

    I was at the briefing that this article is based on. I am a bit more into a lot of the nuts and bolts of USAF programs, so I admit I saw this for what it was a bit more readily: people screwing up on a massive scale.
    The Wing Commander, the Maintenance Group commander and the Ops Group commander at Barksdale have all been relieved as a result of this. The head of 12th AF is also being given the task of giving the results the final scrub and has been granted general court martial authority. This thing isn’t over yet.
    For those of you who persist in conspiracy theories on this incident, this is pretty simple: the Advanced Cruise Missile was – and still is – being retired (which means that the once venerable B-52 of SAC fame no longer has a role in nuclear deterrence).
    Several of the reporters were bamboozled by the Maj. Gens. explanation of what happened, believing that conventional and nuclear warheads were kept in the same room with the ACMs.
    Several times, it was attempted to explain to folks that this ACM has no conventional warhead – its either armed, or it isn’t. I think they eventually got it, but I left.

  16. Well, as the resident Zoomie I’ll make some comments. But my time was spent in SIGINT and Air Traffic Control, not moving nukes around on flightlines.
    Here are the main culprits:
    1. “Air Force officials who were briefed on the findings said investigators found that personnel lacked neither the time nor the resources to perform the inspections, indicating that the weapons officers had become lackadaisical in their duties.”
    2. “One official noted that until the Air Force was given the task of decommissioning the cruise missiles this year, it had not handled airborne nuclear weapons for more than a decade, implying that most of the airmen lacked experience with the procedures.”
    Unless it’s changed in the last decade or so, the Air Force is a highly specialized organization. Much moreso than the Army, from my experience. This specialization leads to rigid bounderies of responsibility. The Air Force culture in my day was borderline “it’s not my job.” This was more from a regulatory standpoint than from any bad attitude – you were NOT supposed to screw around with stuff unless you were authorized and trained to do so. It made sense to a degree, but with communications systems that traversed multiple bounderies of responsibilities and AFSCs (MOSs) there could be serious *coordination* problems.
    If this process was anything like maintaining comms systems, then multiple orgs with various responsibilities and authorizations would be involved. And that sounds like the case.
    The weak points are where bounderies intersect between responsible organizations. It’s where crap gets handed off from one organization to another. If two or three screwups occurred early in the process, those down the line may not have known even if they were following the process to a tee – they just focused on their little portion of the job that they were authorized to work on. This would be especially true if there was an officer’s or senior NCO’s signature signing off the tasks up stream on the checklist.
    Plus, the AFSCs that originally did this work day in and day out may have been eliminated as part of the “peace dividend,” and they were pulling people from other AFCS who did not know what they were doing. If this is the case, there wasn’t *enough* specialization!
    So, my guess is that the process required a high level of specialization yet many of the people performing the work were unqualified or lazy, or a mixture of both. Alcohol could have also been a problem with airmen partying too much the night before – “Why Not Minot” ain’t the most exciting place on the planet.
    No tinfoil hats. And I doubt Minot is now some dumping ground for bad and wayward airmen.

  17. Jean Soucy says:

    Col Lang,
    Greetings, I agrree with your scenerio, as I live in Savannah and we have a Nuclear Device in our water off Tybbe Island, Georgia. 15 Miles from downtown Savannah. Jettisoned by our AF in the Late 50’s early 60’s. A re-look, and search was made after 9-11, 2001, To make sure Terrorist couldn’t find it.
    As an SF SADM Team Leader from 10th Group during the 1970’s I have a good sense of what has to take place for a Nuclear detonation with the systems, that would not happen. The Worst case I Think, would be a convntional explosion equal to less than 25 pounds of conventional explosives. The Emotional and Psychological Power would be far greater. Everyone who violated any rules of surity and safety should be held to account. This was serious. JLS

  18. mike says:

    Makes you wonder how good the equivalent PRP program is in Pakistan?

  19. CSTAR says:

    Zoomie’s explanation makes some sense, and I’m almost convinced by it. If I understand correctly, he is describing a process whose specification requires possibly a large number of agents, each with a very limited task.
    However, I would have thought that the design of such a process, would have allowed for probabilities of failure at each point of the process, with enormous levels of redundancy in making basic sanity checks at every step.
    Is the correct conclusion from all this, that processes for handling nuclear weapons are seriously flawed? This of course makes one wonder about programs in other nuclear powers.

  20. Cujo359 says:

    I wasn’t suggesting that Minot was a “dumping ground”, CWZ. In many large organizations, the good people tend to get assignments that they want, or the ones that will help them advance in their careers. Those who aren’t as good tend to end up places they don’t want to be.
    Perhaps the Air Force is specialized enough that this doesn’t happen as much. From your description, though, it seems I’m right in thinking that Minot isn’t a plum assignment.

  21. hardheaded liberal says:

    Col. Lang, Richard Armstrong was referring to the Winter Patriot link included by raincat100 in his comment earlier in this thread. Winter Patriot was quoting the last comment on this webpage:
    tsstorey does sound a bit out of it …
    Colonel, I am usually right there with you in urging folks to remember that incompetence is at the root of a whole lot more things being FUBAR than evil motives are. But until I see a persuasive unclassified version of the investigation report on this maneuver, I’ve got to withhold judgment. The movement was just a week before the Israeli bombing of the Syrian facility. That timing certainly could be another coincidence, but all these coincidences are downright worrisome!
    Are our nuclear warheads really stored by the Air Force in weapons lockers [or whatever containers/rooms, etc.] where the nuclear warheads are sitting next to conventional warheads? Are the keys to access the storage areas for nuclear warheads on the same keychains as the keys to access conventional warheads?
    The investigative report apparently says the answer is “yes”: the initial control error was that “First, as the missiles were sitting in the weapons storage area, officers did not perform the required inspections.”
    That in itself freaks me out. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military was always emphasizing that it paid attention 1000% to security measures that would prevent the accidental use of nukes. If nuclear warheads were just sitting side by side with conventional warheads all those years, we were sitting here just waiting for a nuclear conflagration. Perhaps we left that much to providence, but it is not plausible to me that nuclear warheads are routinely kept in storage areas that are accessible with the same set of keys as the conventional warheads.

  22. Pan says:

    Cujo – Minot is certainly not a plum assignment, but it isn’t the dead-end assignment you think either. My first assignment in the AF back in the 80s as a young missile maintenance officer was at Minot. In a challenging environment, you learned quickly and those lessons stayed with me. None of the other people assigned with me wanted to be there, but we sucked it up and did our best like the professionals we were. It was a different age back then when the Strategic Air Command ran the place. Nuclear Surety was job #1 and things like this just didn’t happen. The elimination of SAC and the de-emphasis on nuclear operations in the AF just added to the problems. The AF is hurting right now for personnel and money, and the nuclear programs are probably getting raided for other higher priority ones in the current war.

  23. Cujo-
    The only people I saw “working” the assignment system back in the day were the Top Three: E7 through E9.
    Seemed to have more to do with with friends in the right places than performance.

  24. Pan-
    Would be great to hear your ideas on how the process broke down.
    My comments were just speculation (nice word for guessing).
    Woke up this morning and thought my entire rambling comment could probably be boiled down to one fact that you bring up: SAC ain’t running the show any more and that original mentallity has faded away at Minot.
    Speaking of places out in the middle of nowhere…off to Ft. Huachuca I go. Oh the joy.

  25. Mad Dogs says:

    I’m willing to accept that multiple “innocent” screw-ups occurred during the back-end loading of the B-52 cruise missile nukes incident.
    However, like hardheaded liberal, I am still way, way too dumbfounded by the initial “mistake”.
    Let me paint the initial situation that still leaves me stumped:
    1. Nuclear weapons are stored in a “Deadly Force Authorized” bunker. Any thing bigger than a bunny rabbit that approaches such a “Deadly Force Authorized” location, best have that authorization or the Security folks are going to shoot your ass before asking a single question.
    So, how did AF personnel enter the Nuclear Weapons storage facility? If they had “authorization”, who gave it to them? This is not like stopping in at the local 7-Eleven and picking up a twelve-pack.
    My understanding is that an “authorization” to enter a Nuclear Weapons storage facilities and remove nuclear weapons has to come from a good ways up the chain of command (i.e. Base Commander or higher).
    If the AF personnel did not have “authorization”, why aren’t they dead on a slab in the morgue?
    2. The Nuclear weapons storage bunker is a highly-secured and monitored facility. It ain’t like one can take the padlock off your gym locker and use that to secure the doors of a nuclear weapons storage bunker. I’m guessing that an electronically-controlled lock is used. One that requires either (or both) a multiple-digit passcode or some type of cardkey.
    In addition, it would seem highly logical that such “electronic access” would be “monitored”. Using as an example, a home security system, it again would seem logical that “unauthorized entry” would set off alarms as well as a “critical alert” to the monitoring system and its personnel. One might even assume that nuclear weapons storage facilities have “video” monitoring.
    How is it that AF personnel can enter a highly-secured Nuclear weapons storage bunker without detection of the monitoring system and its personnel?
    If the monitoring system and its personnel “were” alerted, what in hell were they thinking when some folks (could have been terrorists dressed as AF personnel) breach the security of the Nuclear weapons storage bunker? Like, “Hey, it’s just Airman 2nd Jethro and that hottie from the secretarial pool using the Nuclear weapons storage bunker for some lunchtime nookie.”?
    3. Since the experts have stated that these Advanced Cruise Missile “only” had a “nuclear warhead package” and had no “conventional warhead” equivalent, there could have been no “oops” by AF personnel in mistaking a conventionally-armed Advanced Cruise Missile with a nuclear version. There is only one version and it radiates.
    How is it that AF personnel can grab a half-dozen nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles and remove them from a highly-secured Nuclear weapons storage bunker? Again, this ain’t like stopping by the local Feedstore and grabbing a load of hay.
    And since these critters weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds, it ain’t like the AF personnel could just grab a half-dozen nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles and slip them under their field jackets and nonchalantly breeze out the door.
    In summary, these initial “failures” of the security of nuclear weapons still does not pass the smell test. While I expect we “civilians” will never get a detailed AF explanation for the initial failures because of secrecy demands, I still have a unbelievably hard time in surmounting the credibility problems that are obvious and disturbing.
    I’m not about to propound conspiracy theories of rabid Cheneyites preparing to nuke Iran, or Aliens arming their UFOs, but something massively stinks here, and it just won’t hang together.

  26. jon says:

    My inclination leans towards classifying this event as a colossal screw up. If only for the speed and severity of the review and judgments distributed to those involved. If only the response to Abu Graib, Haditha, and Tillman had been so swift, expeditious and conclusive. It seems the Air Force recognized that it has a problem, acted, and wants to be sure there’s no repetition.
    It’s possible that the episode was meant to telegraph a message to various parties. But I doubt that it is evidence of an Air Force power struggle or incipient coup. For that, there is evidence or tea leaves aplenty to be found elsewhere.
    Anyway you slice it, this improper handling and transfer of nuclear weapons is a serious crisis. And there are several elements that raise questions – perhaps more because of my distance from, and ignorance of, the specific protocols involved. The public deserves to have their questions answered fully, reassurance that this was in fact an isolated incident, and confidence that it cannot be repeated.
    As has been pointed out, the loss of a missile would (almost certainly) not have resulted in a nuclear detonation. Thank G*d. But there could have easily have been the release and dispersal of radionucleotides from the warhead materials, perhaps exacerbated by detonation or combustion of either or both of the high explosive detonator and/or missile fuel. Depending on circumstance and wind patterns, this could have lead to a substantial contamination of land, water, and people. All to ill effect.
    The damage and effect would be limited to a square mile to several hundred square miles, at varying levels of contamination and severity. But vastly less than even a low yield nuclear explosion. So, immediate deaths would be small to nill, longer term disease likely limited to a few thousand people at most, contaminated soil, water buildings and equipment able to be scooped up and bagged, to be buried in some desert out wet and the area around the dispersal cordoned off for only a few years. Still, not a positive outcome. Best case – the missile falls, maybe breaks up a little on impact on land, no dispersal of nuclear materials, and everything gets packed up into a moderately sized packing case and removed for autopsy.
    It seems as if at least six, and perhaps dozens, of individual mistakes and errors occurred to permit this improper shipment. This represents a cascade failure that could easily have continued and led to a far worse outcome. It is conceivable that the cruise missiles could have been further transhipped to the mideast if the sleepwalking had continued, perhaps erroneously deployed in future adventures against Iran.
    A well designed system fails towards safety. Poor systems favor failures that compound error and danger. This is certainly the latter. That it results from human error and sloppy procedure is immaterial. With the demonstrable effort that have been invested in other aspects of nuclear weapons handling and deployment over the past sixty years, this is no comfort.
    I am surprised that the nuclear warheads on a cruise missile destined for disposal had not already been separated. I would have expected that warheads on stockpiles not tagged for near term distribution would not be mated to their missiles.
    From a safety standpoint, warheads should be bunkered separately from missiles. And non-nuclear warheads should be stockpiled separately from nuclear warheads.
    Understandably, weapons that are forward positioned and potentially required for rapid deployment would be pre-assembled to their delivery vehicle. You would expect to see cruise missiles on ships and submarines to be fully assembled and ready for firing. At Minot they could conceivably be mounted to B-52’s headed towards the Arctic Circle.
    Apparently, there is a program that uses B-52’s to transport cruise missiles within the US.
    I ask, why?
    And why carried externally? The point of a pylon mount is that you expect to be releasing the fixed object before too long. Thus jostling, bumping and some other actions can cause inadvertent releases. If your primary objective was getting the freight to its destination in concert with the airframe, then the pylon mount is not the first recourse.
    B-52s are extremely inefficient freight haulers. Highly useful for loitering for days within striking distance of a target, with a thousand megatons or so of payload, but not really Fed-Ex’s go-to hauler. Are there no spare C-130s laying around?
    Perhaps there is a safety factor in putting a few thousand pounds of freight on an eight engined jet? But the ratio is somewhat like that of a flea to a dog.
    Also, I know that the Air Force thinks that all tasks are better handled in the air. But given the number of prior accidents where nuclear weapons have fallen from and out of aircraft, perhaps ground or water shipment has a superior safety factor?
    There is sufficient interior capacity in a B-52 to carry a clutch of cruise missiles, in a configuration that would be far less likely to result in their inadvertent separation. Missiles on a pylon suggests a training or deployment scenario, not shipment.
    Why are we shipping a dozen cruise missiles at a time? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have fewer flights of higher payloads?
    Why are nuclear and conventional cruise missile shipments being mingled? If they aren’t next to each other, it is a whole lot easier not to grab the wrong one when your attention is distracted.
    How is it possible for a nuclear weapons to have been mistaken for a conventional weapon? They are marked differently and apparently have other visible identifiers. Their paperwork should also be distinctive, making further confusion exceeding difficult.
    How is it possible that the ground and flight crew in Minot were able to complete their pre-flight inspections without noticing that they were strapping on a nuclear payload?
    The Navy details Marines to guard nuclear reactors and warheads on their vessels. Does the Air Force deploy specialized guards and handlers for their nuclear inventory? If so, that reveals a further realm of error.
    Is it typical that aircraft carrying nuclear-capable exterior munitions could be parked at Barksdale AFB without any inspection, inventorying and further security measures? It appears to be almost happenstance that anyone got around to taking a look.
    Were the cruise missiles transported with any of their attendant launch sequence and/or warhead activation materials and documentation? Were any seals broken or materials opened, inspected?
    Why is it that weapons disassembly and decommissioning occurs at a facility where weapons are shipped overseas? One more error and those missiles could have been on their way to Baghram, Incirlik, Kuwait, Qatar or Diego Garcia, or other destinations. You would tyhink that the ‘error’ would be noticed and corrected at some point. But what if personnel just pushed the shipment on down the line?
    It is of note that all of this has become public information, being discussed in near-real time. Most of the Broken Arrow events only surfaced years, if not decades, after the fact. Those catastrophes were all denied or smoke screened and minimized at the time, to the fullest extent possible.
    We just don’t know whether similar problems have occurred previously. It could be that there has been habitual mishandling of nuclear weapons in other circumstances. Since there apparently was a culture and history of ‘informality’ in the handling and record keeping at Minot The question really answers itself, even if no further mishaps ever befell the weapons.
    Someone(s) wanted to make sure that the word about this one got out and travelled widely, so that the toothpaste wouldn’t find its way back into the tube. The event transpired on secure facilities with a fairly limited number of people involved. There was no reason that this story, or even a small corner of it, would emerge. It is significant that the full sequence of events was released at once.
    Either Military Times did some reporting that is worthy of several Pulitzers, or they had a little help putting this together. Maybe a bit of both. Beyond the meager limits of my knowledge, it has been asserted that such a report would require the sign-off of several generals. It has been asserted that all of this is classified information.
    The Air Force response is certainly unprecedented. Previously, the Navy studiously declined to speculate as to whether aircraft carriers might happen to carry any nuclear weapons.
    If not for our current Middle Eastern misadventures, it might be possible to regard all of this simply as a regrettable lapse in accounting procedures. As it is, it spices up the negotiations and saber rattling with Iran over their nuclear program and alleged involvement with provisioning and training the Iraqi resistance.
    I can certainly picture Bush shrugging and explaining away the nuclear detonation at the centrifuge facility as resulting from nearsightedness – my bad, but not intentional. Since this administration seems to have based its’ entire foreign policy on Nixon’s ‘madman’ feint, I’ll spot them the benefit of the doubt.
    But this does fit neatly into the cloud of chatter being deployed around the current ramp up to conflict with Iran. And in that, it neatly mirrors the approach to the Iraqi invasion. It provides no comfort that the administration might be seeking a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear program.
    The upshot is likely to be a further hardening of Iranian resolve, coupled with further diligence in hardening their facilities, camouflaging and dispersing their assets, and providing further redundancy in command and control. I believe that we already had the Iranian’s attention and confidence in our seriousness. It also will likely not earn the US any allies in this contest, militarily or diplomatically, other than urgent calls for sanity.
    Apologies for the length of the post, and the drift off-topic. But I think there is at least a circumstantial linkage here. And I can’t see how this can in any way improves US strategic objectives. I look forward to further enlightenment from this wise and thoughful group.

  27. Pan says:

    CWZ – it’s been almost 20 years since I was in the nuclear weapons world, but the philosophy back then (and should always be when working with nukes) is train, train, and more training. It was drilled into your head from day 1 in tech school that you had to obey the tech orders for whatever you were working on. SAC had a regulation for everything, and those regs were the bible. And there were the constant inspections and evaluations, and heaven forbid you ever busted one. Your life was miserable if you failed an inspection, and the path back to forgiveness was not something you ever forgot. I think those things aren’t happening in today’s AF.

  28. jonst says:

    Yeah, stuff happens. Happens all the time. For instance, this week it happen to good ole Charlie Riechers of the procurement office at the Pentagon. Sure there was nothing to that either.
    Yep, ‘nothing to see here folks….just keep moving along’.

  29. David W says:

    My original thought on this incident was that it was a ‘Walter Reed Hospital’ type incident, where a once sacred duty (with much higher stakes) was now given lip service, in favor of greener pastures. Hearing of the demise of SAC confirms this hunch for me. Heads have rolled, and assurances made, but the conditions still remain.
    On the disinformation front, here are a couple of interesting links, the first regards the Israeli raid on the purported Syrian nuclear facility.
    “The allegations that North Korea was helping to build a nuclear reactor have not been substantiated by US intelligence,” said this intelligence official, adding, “ but that hasn’t stopped Dick Cheney and his minions at the NSC, Elliot Abrams and Steve Hadley, from leaking the information [to the press], which appears to be misleading in the extreme.”
    …and another showing the ongoing stupidity of the Vulcan cabal:
    Prior to the Iraq war, now-National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was an integral part of misleading intelligence dissemination and approved clandestine meetings between Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar and members of a secretive cabal inside the Department of Defense’s controversial Office of Special Plans.
    Second, despite the Cheney/Bush team’s purported mission to prevent Iran from gaining nukes, it was trumped by their need to smear Valerie Plame, whom CBS has confirmed was working on Iran nukes for the CIA at the time she was outed:
    CBS confirms 2006 Raw Story scoop: Plame’s job was to keep nukes from Iran
    Plame will be on 60 Minutes later today to discuss this revelation.

  30. Jose says:

    “This awful example of neglect of duty and inattention to detail is appalling in its illustration of the dangers of complacency.”
    Col, Keep It Simple (because they were probably) Stupid!
    I hope this was an isolated event…

  31. robt willmann says:

    As is said only in corrupt Washington, D.C.: “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup”.
    Everyone else knows it’s both.
    The incident of six stealth Advanced Cruise Missiles with nuclear warheads going
    across the U.S. and the explanation of it are not just strange, they are
    I was not able to access the LA Times article, but here is one from the AP–
    The defense department’s press
    release is here–
    Thinking about this is difficult because for the last six years we have heard more lies from the executive branch of government (and Congress) than a wife who just caught her husband in bed with another woman.
    We have not seen authentic photos
    of the missiles or the warheads,
    so we can only take the government’s word that the type of cruise missile involved was the one that is going to be decommissioned.
    The DOD article, after saying that nuclear-equipped missiles were “unknowingly” transported nearly 1,500 miles on the wing of a B-52 bomber, tells us that–
    “Six nuclear warheads were flown
    from an ammunition bunker at
    Minot to Barksdale for storage.
    The AGM-129 cruise missiles were
    supposed to be unarmed”.
    Now that’s interesting.
    It sounds as if the nuclear warheads were supposed to be flown to Barksdale, but not on the tips of cruise missiles. I don’t know what kind of cargo space a B-52 has, but it raises some questions.
    We can assume that when a cruise
    missile is manufactured, a nuclear warhead is not just welded on the end of it, but rather that the warheads can be put on and taken off as needed.
    The DOD press release tells us
    that a pylon is “six missiles
    packaged together”, and that
    “First, crews did not inspect all of the pylons in the weapons storage area”. More mystery. This seems to mean that the missiles either have nothing on their tips, or conventional or nuclear warheads there.
    So the crews are supposed to look at every missile in the storage area to see what, if
    anything, is stuck on the end of it. If the cruise missiles in question can also take a conventional warhead, are they identical in appearance to
    a nuclear warhead? I assume it’s pretty easy to see if a warhead is attached to the tip of a missile, although I have never personally observed the difference. This implies that cruise missiles with conventional and nuclear warheads are sitting together in
    the same storage area. Why you
    would not want the missiles with
    nuclear warheads in a separate
    storage area is not discussed.
    The DOD article goes on to
    say, “Then, the crew hauling
    the pylon by trailer to the aircraft failed to inspect the missiles.” Still more mystery. So the people hauling the missiles on a trailer to the B-52 didn’t look at them
    or the trailer. Was the trailer
    an enclosed box so the crew could not see the missiles unless the trailer’s door was opened? We are not told.
    Was the “crew hauling the pylon
    by trailer” the same crew that
    attached the missiles to the left wing of the bomber? Or does a different crew attach the missiles to the plane? The DOD press release is silent on whether the airmen attaching the missiles to the B-52 did not look at them while doing so. Maybe they were hotdogging like the basketball player who
    backs up to the basket and without looking at it slam dunks the ball over his head.
    The Associated Press article
    starts out by saying that the
    Air Force punished 70 airmen involved in the “accidental, cross-country flight of a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber”, but adds that–
    “the B-52 was inadvertently armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot in North Dakota to Barksdale in Louisiana without anyone noticing the mistake for more than a day”.
    And, further–
    “After it was loaded with the missiles, the B-52 sat overnight at Minot, then flew the next morning to Louisiana, and then sat on a tarmac again for hours before anyone noticed the nuclear warheads”.
    Oh really?
    And this curious line–
    “The missiles were supposed to be taken to Louisiana, but the warheads were supposed to have been removed beforehand”.
    At the end of the article–
    “The Air Force said in March
    that it had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile fleet soon, and officials said after the breach that the missiles were being flown
    to Barksdale for decommissioning”.
    The DOD press release
    says that the nuclear warheads
    were flown to Barksdale “for
    storage”, and says nothing about
    decommissioning missiles. The
    AP article says that the missiles were to be taken to Louisiana, but that the warheads were supposed to be removed beforehand.
    The DOD article seems to tell us that the only problem was that instead of being inside the cargo area of the B-52, the
    nuclear warheads were on the ends of cruise missiles attached to the wing of the B-52.
    That sounds like a distinction without a difference.
    This again raises the question of whether the nuclear warheads were supposed to be taken off of the missiles and put in the cargo area of the B-52 and flown to Louisiana “for storage”, or whether they were to be flown there in another plane, or maybe not taken to Barksdale at all.
    The AP article quotes an “official” who insisted on anonymity because “he was not authorized to speak on the record”. In essence, the crews decided to extend their middle fingers to the whole complex procedure and their superiors, and replace the schedule “with their own ‘informal’ system, he said, though he didn’t say why they did that nor how long they had been doing it their own way”.
    And what happened to these crews who imitated Frank Sinatra, did it their way, and told everyone else in the Air Force that they could take their complex nuclear weapons handling procedure and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine?
    The AP story tells us, apparently
    without intentionally trying to be funny, that–
    “Some 65 airmen have been decertified from handling nuclear weapons.
    The certification process looks at a person’s psychological profile, any medications they are taking, and other factors in
    determining a person’s reliability to handle weapons”.
    (I don’t mean to get off the track here, but it seems to me as if this “certification process”, especially the part about psychological profiles and
    medications, should be applied
    to the White House, the Defense,
    State, and Justice Departments,
    and Congress).
    Think about the reaction if the following make-believe news release appeared in Texas, my home state.
    “Texas prison system officials
    announced today that six convicted murderers on death row were accidently released from the facility and unknowingly transported from east Texas all the way to El Paso on the New Mexico border. Joe Woodenhead, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division, said the incident resulted from a failure to follow longstanding procedures that have proven to
    be sound. He said an investigation found that there had been an erosion of adherence to death row inmate handling procedures. First, crews did not look at all the death row inmates in the holdover area. Then, the crew bringing the convicts to the two prison system cars did not look
    at them. And finally, the drivers of the cars looked at the person in the front seat but did not look at the three inmates in the back seat of each vehicle. The drivers, front seat passengers, and condemned killers arrived in El Paso and went into a Denny’s Restaurant and sat at their table for hours
    before anyone noticed the inmates still in their prison uniforms”.
    Yes, we all make foolish mistakes and act incompetently with regularity. But the government wants us to purchase this horse without being able to look closely into its mouth.
    At this time, I’m not buying it.

  32. Richard Armstrong says:

    COL Lang,
    Thank you for responding to my questions. The poster above is correct, my questions came from Winter Patriot.
    Even though I’m a self-described Liberal, to my mind, the most worrisome thing is that this incident was “leaked” to the Military Times.
    I don’t think the publication of the incident did anything help our nations security. I’m certain that the same list of 70 or so personnel would have been reprimanded and the same corrective measures taken had the Air Force been able to keep this “in the family”.

  33. Mark K Logan says:

    I searched and searched for
    the article that came out a couple of weeks ago detailing this SNAFU, but was unsuccessful. The gist of it was that the AF equips
    the cruise missles with dummy warheads of exactly the same weight as the real ones. They are stored in the same facility. The check prior to flight is to look through a 1″ square window for the proper color coded tag. The tech checked the ones on the right outside pylon only, and signed off on the rest without looking. Sounds plausible to me, anyway.
    How the wrong ones were mounted on the plane was “classified”, but since the ones resposible are being sacked, I am willing to believe they were not ordered to do this.
    If this had been some sort of plot I rather think we wouldn’t have ever heard about it. Or that the perpetrators were truely monumental wishful thinkers to have simply planned for the personel at the recieving base to not know the color codes.

  34. marquer says:

    …the Advanced Cruise Missile was – and still is – being retired (which means that the once venerable B-52 of SAC fame no longer has a role in nuclear deterrence).

    A former USAF type, who still watches program and budget politics within the force, opined to me that the retirement of the ACM is a highly specific gambit by the Air Force brass to finally get rid of the B-52.
    There isn’t that much need for bulk iron bomb hauling any longer, and plenty of smaller platforms can deliver the reduced tonnage quite effectively. This means that strategic strike with the ACM really was the last viable mission for the good old Stratofortress.
    Bear in mind that the budget pressures on the USAF are about to become blindingly intense. They are desperate for more F-22 wings. They flatly require more C-17s (C-5 upgrades are falling flat, the Army and Marine Corps customer base for airlift is bent on growth, and the existing -17 fleet is flying its wing boxes off supporting the twin wars). They need to pay for the Joint Strike Fighter. And the CV-22, which though they are not buying many does not come cheap. They’ve got to get new tankers. And a new CSAR platform. And the brass are muttering about wanting a manned hypersonic bomber by 2030.
    Add to this that they will have to fight with a Navy which is also hungry for costly new programs to replenish its shrinking hull count, as well as contending with the cost required for the aforementioned expansions of the Army and USMC.
    Something’s got to give.
    What the first thing the boss blue-suiters want for that to be, in the opinion of my observant source, is for the B-52 to go away. It’s a maintenance-heavy old aircraft at a time when the USAF has been slashing slots for career maint personnel. It burns a lot of fuel at a time when the service’s fuel bill is going through the roof.
    It will be a real shame to see them retire, but other classic Cold War platforms which were younger than the BUFF have already gone to the boneyards and museums, the USN F-14 Tomcats being the most recent of that cohort.

  35. Binh says:

    I do believe that this was a genuine mistake on the part of the people invovled, not some conspiracy theory.
    However, my question is: are the nukes being moved back, or are they staying put? The AFB they were moved to had planes flying out of them that bombed Iraq in 1998 and 2003. The reason I ask is because of all the nuclear option speculation being a possibility against Iran.
    If the Col or anyone can answer that question it would be much appreciated.

  36. ked says:

    I wouldn’t put conspiracy AND stupidity beyond the crowd at the controls in this admin.

  37. Cold War Zoomie says:

    Thanks Pan.
    My first duty station was with an Electronic Security Command unit and they were pretty darn uptight about maintenance. Every six months there were inspectors crawling around the place causing every NCO’s a*hole to pucker, peering into the ceilings and digging around under the floors looking for our contraband bench stock! And all us technicians always dreaded our periodic personal inspections (weren’t those called MSEPs?) Then someone transferred in from a Wyoming missile silo base and their stories made our inspections sound tame. None of us wanted to end up on a SAC base.
    The strict adherence with Tech Orders and all the other regs actually caused problems – too much effort trying to meet the *letter* of the law and not the spirit. (ESC’s unofficial motto was F*ck the Mission, Clean the Position)
    Maybe the AF isn’t as anal anymore. I don’t know. Doesn’t sound like their training is as in-depth as it used to be. We deal with their telephone switch techies routinely. Pretty sad state of affairs.

  38. FACT: At one time nuclear surety required that all war reserve weapons were separately identifiable from training weapons. Question: Who gave the order to mate war reserve weapons to a delivery system? Why and when? Question: Do USAF Base Commanders have authority to order mating operations of war reserve weapons?

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