Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Air Force Forgets To Take Nuclear Warheads Off Advanced Cruise Missiles Before Flying the ACMs Across the Country

While the German police were getting ready to disrupt a major terrorist plot to bomb U.S. targets in Germany -- without "massive violations of civil liberties ... US intel support, FISA courts or the help of David Addington’s twisted legal excuses" -- a B-52 bomber was flying a load of Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where they were to be decommissioned. Routine except for one thing: the nuclear warheads that should have been removed before the ACMs left Minot -- weren't:

A B-52 bomber mistakenly loaded with at least five nuclear warheads flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D, to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30, resulting in an Air Force-wide investigation, according to three officers who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.

The B-52 was loaded with Advanced Cruise Missiles, part of a Defense Department effort to decommission 400 of the ACMs. But the nuclear warheads should have been removed at Minot before being transported to Barksdale, the officers said. The missiles were mounted onto the pylons of the bomber's wings.

Advanced Cruise Missiles carry a W80-1 warhead with a yield of 5 to 150 kilotons and are specifically designed for delivery by B-52 strategic bombers.

Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Ed Thomas said the transfer was safely conducted and the weapons were in Air Force custody and control at all times. However, the mistake was not discovered until the B-52 landed at Barskdale, which left the warheads unaccounted for during the approximately 3-1/2 hour flight between the two bases, the officers said.

"Air Force standards are very exacting when it comes to munitions handling," Thomas said. "The weapons were always in our custody and there was never a danger to the American public."

An investigation headed by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, director of Air and Space Operations at Air Combat Command Headquarters, was launched immediately to find the cause of the mistake and figure out how it could have been prevented, Thomas said.

Air Force officials wouldn't officially specify whether nuclear weapons were involved, in accordance with long-standing Defense Department policy regarding nuclear munitions, Thomas said. However, the three officers close to the situation did confirm the warheads were nuclear.

The crews involved with the mistaken load at the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot have been temporarily decertified from performing their duties involving munitions pending corrective actions or additional training, Thomas said.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the munitions squadron commander also was relieved of his duties. The AP also reported that the bomber was carring six nuclear warheads, not five as sources told the Military Times.

Officials at Minot immediately conducted an inventory of its nuclear weapons after the oversight was discovered, and Thomas said he could confirm that all remaining nuclear weapons at Minot are accounted for.

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 could ignite the high explosives associated with the warhead, and possibly cause a leak of the plutonium, but the warheads' elaborate safeguards would prevent a nuclear detonation from occurring, he said.

That, is a serious piece of downplay, and I mean "serious". Given that it seems nobody actually knew the nukes were attached to the missiles one has to ask how anybody would know whether the appropriate safeguards were actually operating. Nukes travel in an isolated exclusion zone filled with strong links and weak links intended to provide failsafe protection against outside stresses like fire, increased pressure and the like. Before a nuke is transported all of those are thoroughly checked. But if no one knew the nukes were even there, is there a chance the exclusion zone checklist was not completed?

The likelihood of an accidental detonation is nearly impossible. The Permissive Action Link, an electronic arming code requiring a two-operator insertion of two different codes within a specified time with an automatic lockout, would have prevented the warheads from ever being armed, but it isn't explosion or detonation that presents the problem.
"The main risk would have been the way the Air Force responded to any problems with the flight because they would have handled it much differently if they would have known nuclear warheads were onboard," he said.

Because in the event of a catastrophe a plutonium leak is going to do more than make the corn [in] South Dakota grow bigger, especially if the B-52 had fallen out of the sky, for any reason, over a densely populated area.

1 comment:

Chief said...

Check out Larry Johnson's thoughts on this subject: