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Air Force Issues New Nuclear Weapons Procedures

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Jessica Lasky-Fink

The U.S. Air Force has issued new procedures and requirements for the handling of nuclear weapons in the wake of an incident last August in which six nuclear warheads were unknowingly transferred across the country. The Air Force decision was announced Jan. 17 and was scheduled to be implemented within 45 days of that date.

The new procedures stem from an incident in which a B-52 bomber flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana with six nuclear air-launched cruise missiles onboard. (See ACT, October 2007. )

The requirements stipulate that nuclear and non-nuclear munitions and missiles must be stored in separate storage structures and that they all must “be identified using stanchions/cones, ropes, and placards to ensure there is a clear distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear munitions/missiles.” The mix-up of nuclear and non-nuclear warheads is one of the many breakdowns in nuclear-handling procedure that preceded the B-52 flight on Aug. 30.

Over a period of four months, Air Force generals have conducted three investigations into the breach of nuclear procedures. Major General Douglas Raaberg, the director of plans and operations at Air Combat Command, conducted the initial Air Force investigation that found that the incident reflects “a breakdown in training, discipline, supervision and leadership.”

Thereafter, Lieutenant General Polly Peyer led an investigation to see if the August incident was part of broader, systemic problems in the Air Force. That review concluded that the problems in the Air Force begin with a lack of commitment to the nuclear mission in senior leadership positions and extend to shortcomings in training, inspections, and funding.

Finally, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked retired General Larry Welch to chair a Defense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety charged with reviewing the entire Department of Defense nuclear enterprise. The task force’s “Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons,” released in February, found a “declining focus and an eroding nuclear enterprise environment” not only in the Air Force, but in the department as a whole.

These three generals, as well as Lieutenant General Daniel Darnell, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12.

In a joint statement to the committee, Generals Darnell, Peyer, and Raaberg outlined the accountability measures that have been taken as a result of the unauthorized weapons transfer. At the same time, they insisted that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is secure, despite findings that point to a waning emphasis by the U.S. military on ensuring proper nuclear weapons procedures.

In all, the generals’ investigations resulted in more than 120 recommendations to strengthen nuclear weapons surety. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, noted with concern that most of the recommendations have not yet been implemented and called the B-52 event “a wake-up call,” asserting that “as long as the United States has nuclear weapons, they must be handled with the utmost security and attention.”

A congressional aide told Arms Control Today that sentiment on Capitol Hill is that these recommendations are fairly comprehensive. The aide indicated that the new Air Force requirements are a good start for addressing the procedural causes of August’s unauthorized nuclear transfer, but the systemic and organizational issues underlying the incident will be more difficult and will take longer to resolve.

Notably, neither the new Air Force procedural document nor any of the three investigative reports satisfy the requirement for a classified report on nuclear surety, as called for in the fiscal 2008 defense appropriations bill, which was signed into law Nov. 13. The bill directs the secretaries of defense and energy to jointly submit a classified report “on the policies and procedures governing the storage and logistic movement of U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear components” within 90 days. As of Feb. 15, the report had not been submitted.