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Nuke Overflight Probes Continue

Zachary Hosford

The first of several investigations into the unauthorized transportation of six U.S. nuclear-armed missiles in late August has identified several breaches of Air Force procedure regarding the handling of strategic weapons.

At an Oct. 19 press briefing, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne made a “one-time exception” to established Department of Defense policy by confirming that a bomber flight from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana did in fact involve nuclear weapons. Initially, the Pentagon refused to confirm this information and adhered to standard policy by simply referring to the event as a “munitions transfer incident.”

The inquiry, led by Major General Douglas Raaberg, director of air and space operations at Air Combat Command (ACC), was launched shortly after the stealth cruise missiles onboard were discovered to still be containing their nuclear warheads. The ACC is in charge of all bombers and fighters in the Air Force.

Wynne was joined at the Pentagon presentation by Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Richard Newton, who identified five individual mistakes beginning with the failure of Minot airmen to properly examine the missiles at the weapons storage area and culminating with the failure of the Barksdale-based flight crew to thoroughly inspect the aircraft’s armaments load before takeoff.

According to Newton, a “series of procedural breakdowns and human errors” caused the airmen at Minot to load the nuclear-armed missiles, which are in the process of being retired, onto the B-52 Stratofortress. He declined to explain why they did not follow the established procedures. This type of event involving nuclear weapons is commonly referred to as a “Bent Spear” incident.

Although the Pentagon would not release the exact number of personnel punished, reports indicated that the Air Force reprimanded nearly 70 officers for their roles in the incident. Four colonels were relieved of their command, including Colonel Bruce Emig, the commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base.

As part of the missile retirement process, the bombers are loaded with AGM-129A cruise missiles whose nuclear warheads have been replaced with dummy versions, in a routine transfer procedure known as a “tactical ferry mission.” On the outside of the missile, there is a small window through which an airman can differentiate a dummy warhead from a nuclear one.

During the briefing, Newton would neither confirm nor deny that nuclear and dummy warheads were housed in the same location, only stating that they were stored within guidelines laid down by the Defense Department and the Air Force.

Examinations of the matter will not end with this investigation. About three weeks after the initiation of the original probe, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch to perform an “independent, outside assessment” of the incident. Gates has pledged to reduce the likelihood of a future incident to the “lowest level humanly possible,” according to Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell.

Gates, without expressing dissatisfaction with General Raaberg’s investigation, apparently called for the additional study to identify the potential presence of any larger structural problems with the Air Force’s nuclear custody procedures.

Welch’s investigation is being performed through the Defense Science Board, a committee comprised of retired military officers and former government officials that advises the Defense Department on a variety of national security issues.

To examine U.S. nuclear weapons policy further, an Air Force “blue ribbon review” also has been established, and Congress has requested a comprehensive assessment of Defense Department and Department of Energy nuclear handling procedures.

Although safeguards incorporated into this particular warhead are designed to avert a nuclear explosion in the event of an accident, concerns were raised regarding the possible release of radioactive material had the aircraft crashed, as well as the military’s ability to reliably account for its strategic weapons.