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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Congress, Pentagon Probe Nuke Overflight

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Zachary Hosford

The transfer of six nuclear warheads aboard a strategic U.S. bomber Aug. 30 has prompted a Pentagon internal investigation and congressional legislation requiring a review of U.S. nuclear custody policies.

Citing Department of Defense policy, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell declined to reveal whether or not the situation did in fact involve nuclear weapons, stating only that there was an “incident” regarding the routine transfer of munitions. He confirmed, however, that the event was significant enough to warrant the notification of President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the latter of whom requested that he be kept apprised of the matter.

The transport of nuclear weapons on combat aircraft does not violate any international treaties to which the United States is party, but safety concerns following a series of accidents during the Cold War involving nuclear weapon-equipped bombers did prompt the government to prohibit such flights in 1968. The United States continues to transfer nuclear weapons aboard military cargo aircraft as well as on ground transportation using public routes.

News reports indicate that a B-52 Stratofortress flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, after having been loaded with the nuclear air-launched cruise missiles. Apparently, military personnel inadvertently attached the nuclear version of the AGM-129A Advanced Cruise Missile to the bomber before it departed on its approximately 2,500-kilometer cross-country journey.

According to the Air Force, airmen discovered the error during internal checks, although not until hours after the warheads had been removed from their storage bunker. Consequently, a munitions squadron commander was relieved of his duties, and additional airmen were “temporarily decertified to perform their duties involving munitions,” according to Lt. Col. Edward Thomas, an Air Force spokesperson.

The Air Force also announced that it had launched an investigation into the incident, in part “to identify any appropriate corrective actions” beyond the aforementioned personnel changes. Additionally, Air Combat Command, the Air Force authority in control of the two involved bomb wings, directed a “command-wide stand down” to review its processes at all of its bases to protect against a repeat occurrence.

Lawmakers responded to the incident as well. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) won approval for an amendment to the fiscal year 2008 Senate defense appropriations bill requiring a “top to bottom review of policies and procedures for controlling custody of, and securing, U.S. nuclear weapons.”

The amendment calls for an evaluation of Defense Department and Department of Energy practices to “monitor and control all aspects of the nation’s nuclear weapons.” It further stipulates that the review, which would culminate with the submission to Congress of a classified report on its findings, be completed within 90 days.

The Senate defense appropriations committee approved the bill Sept. 12, and it has since moved to the full Senate for consideration. The House passed its appropriations bill Aug. 5 without a provision on nuclear custody policies. For the legislation to become law, differences between the Senate bill and the House-passed version must be reconciled in a conference committee.