Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Case of the "Missing" Nukes

B-52s at Minot AFB, North Dakota. A Minot-assigned bomber inadvertently carried five nuclear warheads during a cross-country flight to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on August 30th, raising concerns about weapons safety and accountability.

There's something a bit strange about this Drudge-trumpeted story, concerning the Air Force's "temporary loss" of five nuclear warheads. As reported by the Military Times papers, the warheads were mounted on advanced cruise missiles being flown by a B-52 bomber from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Both Minot and Barksdale are B-52 bases; the movement is part of an effort to decommission 400 of the cruise missiles. The warheads were supposed to be removed before the missiles left Minot, but the error wasn't discovered until the "Buff" touched down in Louisiana last Thursday.

According to the Times, that left the weapons "unaccounted for" during the 3 1/2 hour flight from North Dakota to Louisiana. However, that's a specious claim, at best. As Air Force spokesman Lt Col Ed Henry noted, the weapons were in the service's custody and control at all times. He also reported that all other nuclear weapons at Minot have been accounted for.

What's more disconcerting is the (apparent) break-down in the nuclear chain of custody. Readers of my profile know that I spent portions of my career around nukes, both as an operational intelligence officer and a targeteer. My duties didn't involve the actual handling or loading of those weapons, but you learned quickly that nukes are governed by a completely different set of rules, for obvious reasons. Those regulations are strictly enforced, with "no tolerance" for mistakes.

First, nuclear weapons are segregated from "ordinary" munitions, with additional layers of security and access control. All personnel involved in the protection, storage, handling and loading of the weapons are carefully vetted through the military's Personnel Reliability Program (PRP). Anyone whose loyalty, judgment or stability comes into question loses their PRP certification, and they're no longer allowed to work around nuclear weapons.

Other safeguards are built into the system as well. There's a very tight chain of control; the device is literally "signed for" at every step of the journey from the weapons storage area to the aircraft, and the two-man "rule" is strictly enforced. An individual pilot or load crew member is never allowed to "control" the weapon on the ground. In combat, the pilot of a single-seat fighter would be permitted to launch with a nuclear weapon--and use it in combat--but only if the pilot was certified for the mission, and the "tasking" had been properly authenticated through the chain of command, beginning with the President, or in tactical scenarios, the theater commander--under authority granted by the POTUS.

MSNBC is now reporting that a B-52 squadron commander at Minot has been relived of his duties, because the service has "lost confidence" in his ability to handle nuclear weapons. That move is hardly surprising, given the obvious emphasis that the Pentagon places on nuclear safety and control. And, it's likely that other heads will roll as the Air Force continues its investigation. As we noted in the preceding paragraphs, the movement, loading and protection of nuclear weapons is a carefully regulated process, involving a number of specialists. All could be found culpable in this incident.

But that still doesn't explain how nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were loaded onto a B-52, flown 1450 miles across the United States, and the mistake wasn't discovered until the bomber reached its destination in Louisiana. With most of the Advanced Cruise Missile fleet (AGM-129) is being retired from operational service, we can assume that Minot crews had been through this drill before. Remove the warhead from the missile, then fly the inert weapon to Barksdale for decommissioning. Retiring the warhead--if that's part of the plan--entails a separate (and completely different) process which does not require a B-52 flight.

Given the elaborate safeguards, security procedures and chain-of-control associated with nuclear weapons, it's difficult to fathom how five warheads made their way onto that Buff and they weren't noticed until it arrived at Barksdale. It would be interesting to know how the 5th Bomb Wing (Minot's B-52 unit) fared on its last Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI), which evaluates unit procedures for controlling, handling and safeguarding those weapons.

Something tells me the NSI team will be returning to Minot very soon, and they'll probably evaluate a wing with a new leadership team. Wing commanders who fail their NSI are usually fired; allowing one of your aircraft (and crews) to "unwittingly" carry five nuclear warheads across country is an equally serious offense. It will be interesting to see if the wing's current commander survives this embarrassing incident.


Ironically, the Minot episode reminds us that the nuclear "sabre" was once brandished more openly. During much of the Cold War, Strategic Air Command B-52s (and other bombers) flew "airborne alert" missions, with nuclear weapons onboard. The aircraft loitered near departure points over the North Atlantic (and elsewhere), ready to launch nuclear strike missions against the Soviet Union upon direction from the National Command Authority (NCA). Airborne alert came to an end after a pair of highly-publicized accidents involving B-52s carrying nukes.

In the first event, a bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during an in-flight refueling off the coast of Spain in January 1966, touching off a frantic search for the B-52's four nuclear weapons, which fell into the ocean. The last of the weapons was recovered 80 days later. In 1968, another Buff crashed during an emergency landing at Thule AB, Greenland, spilling radioactive debris across the ice and snow. Hundreds of airmen worked for months cleaning up the radioactive waste. After that, SAC's airborne alert program came to an end.


Unknown said...

My grandfather served at a BOMARC launch site in NJ in the late 60's and I used to work for a policy research institution. I never worked with nukes but it has always been apparent to me that their handling is extremely black and white with no gray areas. Someone on the Buff had to know they were aboard. Even though they are relatively low yield, I can't believe that they did not detect the radiation that still emanates from them. I figure by now, they should have been able to tell from satellites or other babysitters for the flight that their were warheads on the "Buff". Not to mention the fact that it made it to the media. WTF?

Adrasteia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrasteia said...

Let me set the record straight. I was an AF nuclear weapons tech for my AF career.
This incident was a breakdown of accountability. It simply required some people not to check the paperwork.
The military is overtasked and nuclear experience is sadly lacking. Weapons aren't handled like they were in the cold war years. The pilots assumed the ACM did not have warheads installed. They do not check for "radiation". There are no "babysitters" on the ground.
This is how accidents happen. A sequence of events did not take place as they were required to. People did not do the required paperwork verification checks. It's actually quite simple. Do not think there was any conspiracy invovled.
The AF released this info in a press release. It is their policy to release information when it is of public concern. That is in the regulations. The military is not as secretive as everyone likes to think.

Steverino said...

I agree with Frank. It's probably a freak slipup.

I was nuclear-certified navigator/WSO on F-4E fighters. Nuclear weapons are the most tightly controlled objects on the Earth. My mission was to deliver one to deserving targets in Asia and Europe. I trained a lot and was tested a lot but I never saw an actual nuke nor even knew where they were kept. However, I can tell you that any mistake with a nuke is a career ender. You can expect a string of officers to be fired in this case and its not like there's another air force that will hire you.

For example, I heard of a base where they had brought out an actual nuke and hung it on a fighter to test the electronics on it. When they were done, they unloaded it onto its cart and put it off to the side of the hangar under guard for the weapons guys to pick it up. There was another bomb in the hangar, a practice nuke, which looks exactly the same as a real one except it has no explosive nor nuclear material in it. It's made just to practice carrying them around and arming them.

Well, the weapons guys went to the practice nuke. By a weird coincidence, the practice nuke had the same serial number as the real nuke except for one character in the middle. It had like a "B" instead of an "8" or something like that. The guys wheeled out the practice nuke and took it back to the armory and left the real nuke there unguarded.

It only took a few days for the error to be noticed and the nuke was found in the hangar where it had been left. The Air Force has no tolerance for such screw-ups though and fired the squadron commander, wing commander, wing ops officer, the weapons squadron commander, and other assorted guys.

That's how it can happen.

El Jefe Maximo said...

What do you bet the lefties see a ginormous Bush conspiracy in this someplace ?

2 Edge Sword said...

They found the nukes already!?!?!
I was hoping they would find them up thedinnerjacket's ass. Just saying.

Unknown said...

I don't think there was any conspiracy. I am just incredulous that 5 warheads weren't better protected by some kind of redundancy system. Maybe that fell apart too.

Anonymous said...

I agree with "adrasteia" who said this incident was a breakdown in accountability and yes the Air Force is over tasked, but not in the nuclear forces area.

Cops, transportation, civil engineer and other mission support career fields are deploying in extremely high numbers and for longer periods than the flying world, but pilots especially nuclear ready bomber pilots, their maintainers as well as their missile based cousins are not being deployed as their jobs are to be ready for their primary missions. Like the Army and Marines have said all along, it is now a ground war and there is little need for pilots and the weapon systems.

From the news articles I have read, they only said a squadron commander was relieved from command and did not specify a B-52 squadron commander. I would bet the farm that it was a munitions commander and not a pilot who was fired and rightly so. However, in the tradition of nuclear duty, every commander from that one already fired up to and including the wing commander has to vacate the base ASAP. The base needs a fresh start

Speaking from 24 years of Air Force nuclear experience, no nuclear weapon can be moved out of the weapons storage area without the Wing Commander's direct permission. This cannot be delegated to anyone else and he must be on-station throughout the movement unless he has changed the DoD rulebook at Minot. Additionally to remain in compliance with the present nuclear reduction treaties, the weapons can only be uploaded under strict rules which prohibit even taxing around the flightline.

Also forget all the BS stories about practice bombs being mistaken for actual nukes. There is not one person who has worked in that arena who could not tell the difference between the two from a mile away including the egotistical pilots who probably in a hurry to go on a cross-country to get out of Minot.

In regard to lack of experience, everyone should take a look at the 5th Bomb Wing Commander's official biography ( ). While he has 22 years of commissioned service, he started out his flying career as a lowly instructor pilot in 1986 and did not enter nuclear duty until 1990, just two years before the fighter pilots killed off SAC. In total he only has eight years nuclear experience which is marginal in my opinion to command one third of all air breathing nuclear delivery systems in the USAF.

Adrasteia said...

It's not quite true that nuke maintainers and missile techs don't deploy. Some of them have been deploying as prison guards and interrogators. The AF is drawing down and as numbers decrease so too do the number of weapons maintainers. The AF cannot afford to have personnel dedicated to only one task these days. Therefore, munitions control functions, those who direct the work that is done, is more typically filled with conventional munitions troops. Not only don't they understand or care about nuclear weapons they do deploy and they deploy a lot. There could be many causes; I'm betting on a paperwork error. Someone wrote the wrong number on a work order. There are no more dedicated nuclear weapons bomber pilots. They are just pilots and some have nuclear weapons duty but typically not for any length of time.
Oddly enough, I also have 24 years of nuclear weapons duty. A commander would not have signed for this pylon to move because everyone would have thought it did not have warheads installed. It probably passed through a whole lot of redundant checkpoints but no one did the checks because they all thought there were no warheads installed.
Mountain Pilot is dead on about nuclear experience. With the end of the cold war weapons don't get the focus they used to.
Any job is only as good as the people who do it.

Adrasteia said...

One last comment. The story about hanging weapons on a plane to test the electronics is bogus too. It is illegal to use a weapon to perform any testing. Training weapons and real weapons are never allowed to be stored together.

jamminedward said...

Adrasteia and the other experienced commenters certainly make the situation clear--I'd like to add that part of the problem seems to be a proliferation of viable nukes that are slated for "decommissioning." How is it that we're in a hot war, with a couple of theaters of operation that could use some serious softening up, before troops are put in harm's way (remember the big yawn that was "Shock and Awe shucks") but we're going to pay a bundle and risk all manner of accidents, toxic exposures, and plain old F-ups to dismantle something that's designed to blow up enemies and their stuff? WTF indeed! Any nukes need dismantling, do it on a target. Then there won't be a bunch lying around to get mixed up and flown around U.S. airspace.

Dave Holden said...

I was a member of the 5th Security Forces at Minot AFB from Dec 99 to Jan 01. Everyone even remotely involved or even coming close to those weapons is part of the PRP and its absolutely mind boggling to see something like this happen. There are a lot of measures in place to keep something like this from happening, but nothing is infallible, certainly not the US Air Force.

conspiretotherorize said...

While I don't doubt that many in the military are incompetent just like the real world let's answer the hard questions before we dismiss the "unimaginable" conspiracy. Can anyone adress the process of decommisioning ACM's? In particular since these ACM's were being transported to Barksdale AFB can you say that is where the decommissioning takes place? Can anyone confirm the story that there is actually an ACM decommisioning program? Kowing that there is really such a program documented prior to this incident and that decommisioning takes place in Barksdale would go along way to alleviate my concerns about accidently arming and transporting 5 nuclear capable cruise missiles to a location that is reported to be the staging area for Middle East opereations. "Trust me" just doesn't fly with me anymore as all my very creative conspiracy theories are continually being overshadowed by what is actually being carried out by our current administration.

conspiretotherorize said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BHEnigma said...

This was done on purpose so the Chimp in Chief can scare us and further erode our civil rights. Thanks for feeding the Jihad and the vast military industrial complex at the same time King Neocon.

emtr21 said...

I served 6 years as a nuclear weapons technician (at Minot) and a lot of you have posted erroneous or just badly thought out comments concerning our countries nuclear programs. The facts are that yes there is a decommissioning of these ACM's at Minot to comply with post Cold War treaty's and while it is still unfathomable to me that this kind of "mistake" could happen, I do believe it's possible and obviously it happened. The Air Force has cut nearly 30,000 Airmen in the past few years officers and enlisted alike meaning fewer people with higher ops tempos which equals mistakes more often and more serious in nature. The only lesson this should serve is to demonstrate to Congress that the "people for planes" program isn't working because without having a solid team of Airmen your planes will never leave the ground. The short of it is that these weapons were signed off as having had their warheads removed which means that some 19 year old technician and his 21 year old team chief "pencil whipped" some papers after clearing a bay full of these ACM's when in reality 5 of them hadn't been done yet. These weapons were then stored in a non nuclear certified munitions unit and later the "shells" were scheduled to be flown to Barksdale for the final phase of decommissioning. No one at this point could have known they contained nuclear warheads because there are no outer visuals to show that. The weapons were then loaded on and the flight crews preflight checks confirmed that they had the correct number of ACM's on board but again nothing would have alerted them to the nature of their payload. The real misfortune is that because the Air Force has gone to "minimum manning, maximum working" that these kind of mistakes are going to happen more and more often. They may not be "nukes" but rather an Airman dies because they were exhausted and make a mistake or any number of scenarios. The real culprit is the Air Force senior leaders at the pentagon and congress for trying to trim a military branch that is already spread to thin. With the Air Force projecting another 20,000 cuts in 2008 and 2009 I'm sad to say this isn't the last the "Air Force" will make national news because of a mistake that is news worthy. There is no plot or scheme at work here, just bad judgment and oversite by undermanned and under trained maintainers. The avg age of a nuclear weapons technician is only 19 years old so how is it that a commander can trust his career when he knows that 19 year old is under paid, under trained and over worked on a yearly basis. This is the problem for future officers and leaders that must be addressed and I only hope that this incident brings this to light. I am friends with many of those affected by this incident and I wish them the best of luck because a lot of "bystanders" are going to get axed and morale at Minot was already at an all time low. Oh and on parting note Minot's last NSI was rated outstanding/excellent in all areas so they are ready and capable to carry out the orders of our Commander in Chief at a moments notice, and this incident is going to have devastating effects on their ability to effectively operate in the next couple of weeks.

The Pundit said...

In Canada, we require a min. of 10 signatures in various log books to ship any munition by air: (4 of which are lower ranks);
shipper\driver and his MC; AC loader and his MC; Stores C & NC: (WO + Col. for override for Non-Convential (we are not allowed by law to load and nuclear ordinance in Canada except under a temporary direct executive order from the CoS); base commander & wing or lt. commander; and finally the pilot & co-pilot. Since we are talking nuclear ordinance here, this situation would also require the requisite teams to assemble, arm, disassemble and disarm on the bases (from what I understand the munitions were shipped in a live state).

A brave and courageous junior officer or NCO saw something seriously amiss here and did the right thing by outing it. So what do we now have on our hands...

Sabre-Ratting? Maybe. It doesn't hurt, but then it never amounts to much either unless it's backed up. Four years of huffing and puffing @ Kim Jong Il have only emboldened him to force the US to finally capitulate on most of their original demands. So no.

Ineptitude? I don't think so - not from 24 signatures, in a variety of log books, on two different bases spread across the country, all officially sanctioned by a Lt. Commmander.

Perimeter or Operations Test? Awfully expensive way to test operational procedure. The PSYOPS mouthpieces are in damage control mode though, so that argument is untenable.

Covert Operation? Very possible. A covert operation to strike Iran (think Nicaragua\El Salvador 70's) without the official sanction or oversight of Gates' office, perhaps to shield him, in the event things go awry. [Remember: TWO bases involved here, so you have at least one person at the level of Lieutenant Commander or higher, calling the shots. Is it conceivable? Maybe. Is it practicable though? A definite yes.

The most tenable scenario though, is that this was indeed an inside job, setup to 'lose' some nukes for a definite hit, either domestically, or internationally; but in either case, a false-flag operation. (I say definite, because lunatics don't acquire nuclear weapons simply to shelve them).

They were left on the tarmak for 12 hours, fully crated and completely un-guarded, i.e. for immediate pickup & delivery.

They were fully activated and mounted in flight, no doubt to prove to the intended recipient that the weapons are fully functional and will operate as expected.

Rogue military elements sanctioned or not, these people are playing a very dangerous game. Ironically, the way back to a sane (i.e. Ron Paul) US foreign policy, instead of the current debacle, may rest with Vladimir Putin. The Russian Bear has fully awakened as of late, and he is, understandably, none too pleased.

Robin Storm - In Search of Severe Weather. said...

I am retired Navy (SupSalv) and had a Nuke Ticket.

I am still somewhat skeptical but very hopeful that this was just “a very serious accident”.

The reason for my being skeptical is that I understand the procedures surrounding the movement and transport of these weapons, when we do transport them we do not transport them with a sign saying “ nuclear weapons stay back 27 miles”…. or manifest them as such. And no the procedures are just as tight as they have ever been, especially after 911.

It would be easier to swallow this as an accident if it involved just one armed ACM not six. Understand besides very stringent security and paper work requirement in the movement there are structural differences between a ARMED conventional and nuclear ACM.

Lets not talk about the little “RED” markings on the nuclear armed version. While lets say that the munitions crew did in fact screw up. Are we saying that the B-52Hs Crew Chief and Command Pilot were also asleep at the wheel? How is that crews at Barksdale discovered this and not the nuke techies?

Again I am not much on conspiracies and understand that accidents happen. But if our military has degraded to this point then its time to clean house starting with the Joint Chiefs.

I will also remind everyone here that war or an airstrike against Iran is not conspiracy theory its a strategically planned fact. The question is will the plan be executed and how?

Anonymous said...

My father spent several years in the AF. NORAD and SAC. No one accidently loads a armed Nuclear Weapon on a B-52. Period. There is not a pilot and crew alive who does not know what armaments they are carrying. It is their job to know.

It is the Radar Navigators (Bombardier) job to know.

Oreyeon said...

This guy was involved in the "incident". Now he is dead? No details as of yet on how he died. But I find it suspicious nonetheless. And someone needs to get the numbers straight. First I hear that six nukes were mis-transported, then it changes to five, then back to six, now I'm hearing five again. Broken Arrow anyone? Something smells afoul. I'm not saying there's a conspiracy going on, but something is definitely afoot, and the first of probably a few involved is now dead. Questions, questions...

Drew said...

I agree that this is some very terrifying stuff either accident or conspiracy but I checked url #4 in the list of 7 dead airmen and found the person died in early july. I don't doubt that people would kill in theses circumstances but lets try to keep facts from fiction.

navyman said...

I think there is a conspiracy in this. How can someone come home on leave and suddenly committ suicide? I talked to a family that went to his house and there was no wreath on the door representing anyone had passed away and nothing posted in the newspapers obituaries. There is more going on than what we think, I think someone is correcting their mistakes.

Watchman63 said...

I was in Air Force Security Police from 1982-1990 at Elmendorf AFB and Grand Forks AFB.

I was in the 842 Missile Security Squadron (SAC)at Grand Forks from 1987-1990, and I cannot fathom that a mistake such as this could happen in the ultra-tight security environment of SAC at that time. No movement of any nuke ever occurred without separate authorization and verification on the security and maintenance sides of the house.

There was such redundancy in the system that if a mistake were made by any one person, another would certainly catch that mistake. Even if the entire maintenance side of the house had screwed up, security would still have to have separate authorization and would catch that mistake.

I expect that the government/military will lie about and manipulate stories for whatever purpose suits them. While that can be disturbing, we are accustomed to that. What is far scarier than that is if this WAS purely a mistake.

If this was a mistake, it means that there has been a systemic breakdown in nuclear security since the end of the cold war and the dismantling of SAC. The implications of this incident being a series of mistakes indicates that there is a fundamental breakdown of nuclear security in our military.

Indeed, the non-nuclear security of base facilities and aircraft when I worked at Elmendorf AFB was very tight. Security Police had to be notified of the aircraft type and tail number any time any aircraft was moved or was arriving or departing. We were also notified any time there was any movement of conventional weapons from the weapons storage area.

From reading the comments here of those who have worked with USAF nukes more recently than my experience, it sounds as if nuclear security may be very much compromised from the high level it was at during the cold war. That is the truly scary thing about this story. This NEVER would have happened in SAC.

A. McCrory said...

Watchman63; The SAC days are gone. Security Forces personnel do indeed have a say in the movement of weapons...but only from a secure environment point of view. They would never verify the presence of a nuclear weapon. Security Force personnel are certified as Controlled PRP, which means they do not have knowledge of nuclear weapons design and function. Nuke Techs are Critical PRP. Only nucle techs would be allowed to verify the presence of warheads in an ACM. The Security Forces would verify that the pylon with six missile was scheduled to move and authorized to move. If nuclear warheads were installed the Wing Commander would have to give final approval to roll the pylon to the flightline. But remember one thing, everyone thought the pylon did NOT have nukes installed in the missiles. Therefore all those checks and balances would have not been necessary. That is the crux of the matter.

Someone else mentioned that the ACM sat in crates on the flightline and questioned that six warheads were accidentally shipped. You have to understand the configuration of the missiles. They were not in crates. They were mounted under a pylon with is simply an aerodynamic fairing that is attached to the B523 wing. It contains all the wiring between the missiles and the plane. The warheads are not readily visible in the missile. A technician has to go to each missile and use a flashlight to look through a small port in the payload bay door and verify that a weapon is in the payload bay. These technicians were so sure the missiles did not have warheads they didn't bother to check.

EMTR21 is exactly right in his assessment of the situation. Missile don't say NUCLEAR WARHEAD INSTALLED on the outside. I can tell you from personal experience that when I was in maintenance I knew what warheads were where and what configuration they were in. It's really tempting to trust your own knowledge. But when you have shift work going on, and one shift might change the order of work and not tell the next, it's really possible that the team that picked up the pylon thought they knew the warheads had been removed when in fact they didn't. Doesn't alleviate their responsibility to check one more time.

My only disagreement with EMTR21 is that the technicians might have been undertrained but there was a well qualified 2W2 Chief at that wing. It was her job to ensure the technicians were trained, knew the seriousness of their jobs, protected them from the pressures of leadership, and protected her officers from getting fired. She failed in that. But she will be allowed to retire with all her pay and benefits.

Wathcman63, there HAS been a systematic breakdown in nuclear security since the end of the Cold War. It just caught up with the AF now. That's far scarier than a conspiracy.

grandpa said...

The author blew my belief in him when he states four nukes fell in the water off Spain in 1966. Two fell on land, one in shallow water and one in deep water. The "High Explosive" part of the two on land went off and thousands of barrels of topsoil were shipped to the US for disposal as contaminated. Tomato growers in Spain were compensated for loss of production. I know. I was there. I was a "33150" (Nuke Wpns. Specialist) in the USAF 1963-1967

Unknown said...

If i had to jump to conclusions.Now would be a good time to complete the investigation on this issue.How in the hell could a chain of command of our nation be so inept and incompetent when handling nuclear weapons.O U AS_HOLES