Taiwan Fuse Shipment Reveals Nuclear Security Gaps

Jeremy Patterson

In the second major nuclear security lapse to be revealed in a year, the Pentagon admitted March 25 that it had mistakenly shipped four nuclear-weapon fuses to Taiwan in August 2006. The fuses had been shipped instead of four replacement helicopter batteries, which Taipei had ordered. Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne acknowledged in a March 25 news briefing that the fuses do not even bear a physical resemblance to the batteries Taiwan ordered.

The fuses, which contain no fissile material themselves, are a component of the Mk-12 re-entry vehicle, which carries nuclear warheads for the Minuteman III ICBM. Minuteman missiles with Mk-12 re-entry vehicles compose a significant portion of the U.S. force of 460 ICBMs.

According to Wynne and Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry at the March 25 briefing, the specific items shipped to Taiwan were battery-powered fuses that send an electric signal to trigger the nuclear warhead when it reaches the appropriate altitude above its target. Although the Mk-12 system was introduced in 1954, making its technology quite dated today, its design remains classified due to its continued use as part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates immediately charged Admiral Kirkland Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, with conducting a full investigation of the incident within 60 days. Donald gave a classified briefing to Gates with the preliminary findings of his investigation on April 15. A final public report is scheduled to be completed May 24.

Gates also ordered a full inventory of the Pentagon's nuclear weapons and related materials and informed Chinese officials of the error. China has long been sensitive to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province. At the March 25 news briefing, Henry stressed that the shipment of the nuclear fuses to Taiwan was "an error in process only and is not indicative of [a change in] our policies."

In response, Qin Gang, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said March 27 that the Chinese have expressed serious concern and strong dissatisfaction over the incident. President George W. Bush also discussed the incident personally during a March 26 phone conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

According to information released by the Department of Defense, the four fuses were declared as excess and shipped March 2005 from Warren Air Force Base (AFB) in Wyoming to a central Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) warehouse at Hill AFB north of Salt Lake City, Utah. At some point during or after the transfer, the fuses were apparently mislabeled as helicopter batteries and incorrectly placed in unclassified storage. They remained in that state until they were shipped to Taiwan in August 2006. Taiwanese officials stated that they immediately informed the United States that they had not received the batteries but did not indicate that they had received nuclear fuses. Henry stated that Defense Department officials simply assumed at the time that they had shipped an incorrect type of battery. It was not until March 20, after a series of communications with Taiwan, that Pentagon officials first became aware Taiwan had not simply received the wrong batteries, but classified nuclear weapon components.

The private contracting firm EG&G manages operations at the DLA warehouse that received the fuses in March 2005 and later shipped them to Taiwan.

On April 6, The Deseret Morning News obtained and posted on its website a May 2007 Air Force Audit Agency report on Hill AFB's logistics center managed by EG&G. That report found that 20 of 21 sampled line items were not properly accounted for at the facility. The report identified the cause of the problem in the specifications of EG&G's contract with the DLA, which allows obsolete and excess material to be excluded from mandated quarterly inventory reconciliations. It does not appear that the fuses, which had been shipped to Hill AFB as excess material, would have been inventoried in those quarterly checks.

The incident is the second recent embarrassment for the U.S. nuclear establishment and led to strengthened calls for a more thorough re-evaluation of the nation's nuclear security than will be provided by the currently scheduled report. In August, live nuclear weapons were accidentally flown across the country. A Defense Department report investigating that incident acknowledged a "marked decline in the level and intensity of focus on the nuclear enterprise and the nuclear mission" (see ACT, March 2008), although a separate blue-ribbon report commissioned in response to the incident found that "accountability of nuclear weapons in the [U.S. Air Force] is sound."

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