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20 October 2007

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jon

My inclination leans towards classifying this event as a colossal screw up. If only for the speed and severity of the review and judgments distributed to those involved. If only the response to Abu Graib, Haditha, and Tillman had been so swift, expeditious and conclusive. It seems the Air Force recognized that it has a problem, acted, and wants to be sure there's no repetition.

It's possible that the episode was meant to telegraph a message to various parties. But I doubt that it is evidence of an Air Force power struggle or incipient coup. For that, there is evidence or tea leaves aplenty to be found elsewhere.

Anyway you slice it, this improper handling and transfer of nuclear weapons is a serious crisis. And there are several elements that raise questions - perhaps more because of my distance from, and ignorance of, the specific protocols involved. The public deserves to have their questions answered fully, reassurance that this was in fact an isolated incident, and confidence that it cannot be repeated.

As has been pointed out, the loss of a missile would (almost certainly) not have resulted in a nuclear detonation. Thank G*d. But there could have easily have been the release and dispersal of radionucleotides from the warhead materials, perhaps exacerbated by detonation or combustion of either or both of the high explosive detonator and/or missile fuel. Depending on circumstance and wind patterns, this could have lead to a substantial contamination of land, water, and people. All to ill effect.

The damage and effect would be limited to a square mile to several hundred square miles, at varying levels of contamination and severity. But vastly less than even a low yield nuclear explosion. So, immediate deaths would be small to nill, longer term disease likely limited to a few thousand people at most, contaminated soil, water buildings and equipment able to be scooped up and bagged, to be buried in some desert out wet and the area around the dispersal cordoned off for only a few years. Still, not a positive outcome. Best case - the missile falls, maybe breaks up a little on impact on land, no dispersal of nuclear materials, and everything gets packed up into a moderately sized packing case and removed for autopsy.

It seems as if at least six, and perhaps dozens, of individual mistakes and errors occurred to permit this improper shipment. This represents a cascade failure that could easily have continued and led to a far worse outcome. It is conceivable that the cruise missiles could have been further transhipped to the mideast if the sleepwalking had continued, perhaps erroneously deployed in future adventures against Iran.

A well designed system fails towards safety. Poor systems favor failures that compound error and danger. This is certainly the latter. That it results from human error and sloppy procedure is immaterial. With the demonstrable effort that have been invested in other aspects of nuclear weapons handling and deployment over the past sixty years, this is no comfort.

I am surprised that the nuclear warheads on a cruise missile destined for disposal had not already been separated. I would have expected that warheads on stockpiles not tagged for near term distribution would not be mated to their missiles.

From a safety standpoint, warheads should be bunkered separately from missiles. And non-nuclear warheads should be stockpiled separately from nuclear warheads.

Understandably, weapons that are forward positioned and potentially required for rapid deployment would be pre-assembled to their delivery vehicle. You would expect to see cruise missiles on ships and submarines to be fully assembled and ready for firing. At Minot they could conceivably be mounted to B-52's headed towards the Arctic Circle.

Apparently, there is a program that uses B-52's to transport cruise missiles within the US.
http://www.acc.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123072696
I ask, why?

And why carried externally? The point of a pylon mount is that you expect to be releasing the fixed object before too long. Thus jostling, bumping and some other actions can cause inadvertent releases. If your primary objective was getting the freight to its destination in concert with the airframe, then the pylon mount is not the first recourse.

B-52s are extremely inefficient freight haulers. Highly useful for loitering for days within striking distance of a target, with a thousand megatons or so of payload, but not really Fed-Ex's go-to hauler. Are there no spare C-130s laying around?

Perhaps there is a safety factor in putting a few thousand pounds of freight on an eight engined jet? But the ratio is somewhat like that of a flea to a dog.

Also, I know that the Air Force thinks that all tasks are better handled in the air. But given the number of prior accidents where nuclear weapons have fallen from and out of aircraft, perhaps ground or water shipment has a superior safety factor?

There is sufficient interior capacity in a B-52 to carry a clutch of cruise missiles, in a configuration that would be far less likely to result in their inadvertent separation. Missiles on a pylon suggests a training or deployment scenario, not shipment.

Why are we shipping a dozen cruise missiles at a time? Wouldn't it be more efficient to have fewer flights of higher payloads?

Why are nuclear and conventional cruise missile shipments being mingled? If they aren't next to each other, it is a whole lot easier not to grab the wrong one when your attention is distracted.

How is it possible for a nuclear weapons to have been mistaken for a conventional weapon? They are marked differently and apparently have other visible identifiers. Their paperwork should also be distinctive, making further confusion exceeding difficult.

How is it possible that the ground and flight crew in Minot were able to complete their pre-flight inspections without noticing that they were strapping on a nuclear payload?

The Navy details Marines to guard nuclear reactors and warheads on their vessels. Does the Air Force deploy specialized guards and handlers for their nuclear inventory? If so, that reveals a further realm of error.

Is it typical that aircraft carrying nuclear-capable exterior munitions could be parked at Barksdale AFB without any inspection, inventorying and further security measures? It appears to be almost happenstance that anyone got around to taking a look.

Were the cruise missiles transported with any of their attendant launch sequence and/or warhead activation materials and documentation? Were any seals broken or materials opened, inspected?

Why is it that weapons disassembly and decommissioning occurs at a facility where weapons are shipped overseas? One more error and those missiles could have been on their way to Baghram, Incirlik, Kuwait, Qatar or Diego Garcia, or other destinations. You would tyhink that the 'error' would be noticed and corrected at some point. But what if personnel just pushed the shipment on down the line?

It is of note that all of this has become public information, being discussed in near-real time. Most of the Broken Arrow events only surfaced years, if not decades, after the fact. Those catastrophes were all denied or smoke screened and minimized at the time, to the fullest extent possible.

We just don't know whether similar problems have occurred previously. It could be that there has been habitual mishandling of nuclear weapons in other circumstances. Since there apparently was a culture and history of 'informality' in the handling and record keeping at Minot The question really answers itself, even if no further mishaps ever befell the weapons.

Someone(s) wanted to make sure that the word about this one got out and travelled widely, so that the toothpaste wouldn't find its way back into the tube. The event transpired on secure facilities with a fairly limited number of people involved. There was no reason that this story, or even a small corner of it, would emerge. It is significant that the full sequence of events was released at once.

Either Military Times did some reporting that is worthy of several Pulitzers, or they had a little help putting this together. Maybe a bit of both. Beyond the meager limits of my knowledge, it has been asserted that such a report would require the sign-off of several generals. It has been asserted that all of this is classified information.

The Air Force response is certainly unprecedented. Previously, the Navy studiously declined to speculate as to whether aircraft carriers might happen to carry any nuclear weapons.

If not for our current Middle Eastern misadventures, it might be possible to regard all of this simply as a regrettable lapse in accounting procedures. As it is, it spices up the negotiations and saber rattling with Iran over their nuclear program and alleged involvement with provisioning and training the Iraqi resistance.

I can certainly picture Bush shrugging and explaining away the nuclear detonation at the centrifuge facility as resulting from nearsightedness - my bad, but not intentional. Since this administration seems to have based its' entire foreign policy on Nixon's 'madman' feint, I'll spot them the benefit of the doubt.

But this does fit neatly into the cloud of chatter being deployed around the current ramp up to conflict with Iran. And in that, it neatly mirrors the approach to the Iraqi invasion. It provides no comfort that the administration might be seeking a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear program.

The upshot is likely to be a further hardening of Iranian resolve, coupled with further diligence in hardening their facilities, camouflaging and dispersing their assets, and providing further redundancy in command and control. I believe that we already had the Iranian's attention and confidence in our seriousness. It also will likely not earn the US any allies in this contest, militarily or diplomatically, other than urgent calls for sanity.

Apologies for the length of the post, and the drift off-topic. But I think there is at least a circumstantial linkage here. And I can't see how this can in any way improves US strategic objectives. I look forward to further enlightenment from this wise and thoughful group.

Pan

CWZ - it's been almost 20 years since I was in the nuclear weapons world, but the philosophy back then (and should always be when working with nukes) is train, train, and more training. It was drilled into your head from day 1 in tech school that you had to obey the tech orders for whatever you were working on. SAC had a regulation for everything, and those regs were the bible. And there were the constant inspections and evaluations, and heaven forbid you ever busted one. Your life was miserable if you failed an inspection, and the path back to forgiveness was not something you ever forgot. I think those things aren't happening in today's AF.

jonst

Yeah, stuff happens. Happens all the time. For instance, this week it happen to good ole Charlie Riechers of the procurement office at the Pentagon. Sure there was nothing to that either.

Yep, 'nothing to see here folks....just keep moving along'.

David W

My original thought on this incident was that it was a 'Walter Reed Hospital' type incident, where a once sacred duty (with much higher stakes) was now given lip service, in favor of greener pastures. Hearing of the demise of SAC confirms this hunch for me. Heads have rolled, and assurances made, but the conditions still remain.

On the disinformation front, here are a couple of interesting links, the first regards the Israeli raid on the purported Syrian nuclear facility.

“The allegations that North Korea was helping to build a nuclear reactor have not been substantiated by US intelligence,” said this intelligence official, adding, “ but that hasn't stopped Dick Cheney and his minions at the NSC, Elliot Abrams and Steve Hadley, from leaking the information [to the press], which appears to be misleading in the extreme.”

...and another showing the ongoing stupidity of the Vulcan cabal:

Prior to the Iraq war, now-National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was an integral part of misleading intelligence dissemination and approved clandestine meetings between Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar and members of a secretive cabal inside the Department of Defense’s controversial Office of Special Plans.

http://rawstory.com/news/2007/US_Intelligence_does_not_show_Syrian_1018.html

Second, despite the Cheney/Bush team's purported mission to prevent Iran from gaining nukes, it was trumped by their need to smear Valerie Plame, whom CBS has confirmed was working on Iran nukes for the CIA at the time she was outed:

CBS confirms 2006 Raw Story scoop: Plame's job was to keep nukes from Iran

Plame will be on 60 Minutes later today to discuss this revelation.

Jose

"This awful example of neglect of duty and inattention to detail is appalling in its illustration of the dangers of complacency."

Col, Keep It Simple (because they were probably) Stupid!

I hope this was an isolated event...

robt willmann

As is said only in corrupt Washington, D.C.: "It's not the crime, it's the coverup".
Everyone else knows it's both.

The incident of six stealth Advanced Cruise Missiles with nuclear warheads going
across the U.S. and the explanation of it are not just strange, they are
bizarre.

I was not able to access the LA Times article, but here is one from the AP--

http://apnews.myway.com/article/20071020/D8SCT67O0.html

The defense department's press
release is here--

http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=47859

Thinking about this is difficult because for the last six years we have heard more lies from the executive branch of government (and Congress) than a wife who just caught her husband in bed with another woman.

We have not seen authentic photos
of the missiles or the warheads,
so we can only take the government's word that the type of cruise missile involved was the one that is going to be decommissioned.

The DOD article, after saying that nuclear-equipped missiles were "unknowingly" transported nearly 1,500 miles on the wing of a B-52 bomber, tells us that--

"Six nuclear warheads were flown
from an ammunition bunker at
Minot to Barksdale for storage.
The AGM-129 cruise missiles were
supposed to be unarmed".

Now that's interesting.

It sounds as if the nuclear warheads were supposed to be flown to Barksdale, but not on the tips of cruise missiles. I don't know what kind of cargo space a B-52 has, but it raises some questions.

We can assume that when a cruise
missile is manufactured, a nuclear warhead is not just welded on the end of it, but rather that the warheads can be put on and taken off as needed.

The DOD press release tells us
that a pylon is "six missiles
packaged together", and that
"First, crews did not inspect all of the pylons in the weapons storage area". More mystery. This seems to mean that the missiles either have nothing on their tips, or conventional or nuclear warheads there.

So the crews are supposed to look at every missile in the storage area to see what, if
anything, is stuck on the end of it. If the cruise missiles in question can also take a conventional warhead, are they identical in appearance to
a nuclear warhead? I assume it's pretty easy to see if a warhead is attached to the tip of a missile, although I have never personally observed the difference. This implies that cruise missiles with conventional and nuclear warheads are sitting together in
the same storage area. Why you
would not want the missiles with
nuclear warheads in a separate
storage area is not discussed.

The DOD article goes on to
say, "Then, the crew hauling
the pylon by trailer to the aircraft failed to inspect the missiles." Still more mystery. So the people hauling the missiles on a trailer to the B-52 didn't look at them
or the trailer. Was the trailer
an enclosed box so the crew could not see the missiles unless the trailer's door was opened? We are not told.

Was the "crew hauling the pylon
by trailer" the same crew that
attached the missiles to the left wing of the bomber? Or does a different crew attach the missiles to the plane? The DOD press release is silent on whether the airmen attaching the missiles to the B-52 did not look at them while doing so. Maybe they were hotdogging like the basketball player who
backs up to the basket and without looking at it slam dunks the ball over his head.

The Associated Press article
starts out by saying that the
Air Force punished 70 airmen involved in the "accidental, cross-country flight of a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber", but adds that--

"the B-52 was inadvertently armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot in North Dakota to Barksdale in Louisiana without anyone noticing the mistake for more than a day".

And, further--

"After it was loaded with the missiles, the B-52 sat overnight at Minot, then flew the next morning to Louisiana, and then sat on a tarmac again for hours before anyone noticed the nuclear warheads".

Oh really?

And this curious line--

"The missiles were supposed to be taken to Louisiana, but the warheads were supposed to have been removed beforehand".

At the end of the article--

"The Air Force said in March
that it had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile fleet soon, and officials said after the breach that the missiles were being flown
to Barksdale for decommissioning".

The DOD press release
says that the nuclear warheads
were flown to Barksdale "for
storage", and says nothing about
decommissioning missiles. The
AP article says that the missiles were to be taken to Louisiana, but that the warheads were supposed to be removed beforehand.

The DOD article seems to tell us that the only problem was that instead of being inside the cargo area of the B-52, the
nuclear warheads were on the ends of cruise missiles attached to the wing of the B-52.

That sounds like a distinction without a difference.

This again raises the question of whether the nuclear warheads were supposed to be taken off of the missiles and put in the cargo area of the B-52 and flown to Louisiana "for storage", or whether they were to be flown there in another plane, or maybe not taken to Barksdale at all.

The AP article quotes an "official" who insisted on anonymity because "he was not authorized to speak on the record". In essence, the crews decided to extend their middle fingers to the whole complex procedure and their superiors, and replace the schedule "with their own 'informal' system, he said, though he didn't say why they did that nor how long they had been doing it their own way".

And what happened to these crews who imitated Frank Sinatra, did it their way, and told everyone else in the Air Force that they could take their complex nuclear weapons handling procedure and stick it where the sun doesn't shine?

The AP story tells us, apparently
without intentionally trying to be funny, that--

"Some 65 airmen have been decertified from handling nuclear weapons.
The certification process looks at a person's psychological profile, any medications they are taking, and other factors in
determining a person's reliability to handle weapons".

(I don't mean to get off the track here, but it seems to me as if this "certification process", especially the part about psychological profiles and
medications, should be applied
to the White House, the Defense,
State, and Justice Departments,
and Congress).

Think about the reaction if the following make-believe news release appeared in Texas, my home state.

"Texas prison system officials
announced today that six convicted murderers on death row were accidently released from the facility and unknowingly transported from east Texas all the way to El Paso on the New Mexico border. Joe Woodenhead, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division, said the incident resulted from a failure to follow longstanding procedures that have proven to
be sound. He said an investigation found that there had been an erosion of adherence to death row inmate handling procedures. First, crews did not look at all the death row inmates in the holdover area. Then, the crew bringing the convicts to the two prison system cars did not look
at them. And finally, the drivers of the cars looked at the person in the front seat but did not look at the three inmates in the back seat of each vehicle. The drivers, front seat passengers, and condemned killers arrived in El Paso and went into a Denny's Restaurant and sat at their table for hours
before anyone noticed the inmates still in their prison uniforms".

Yes, we all make foolish mistakes and act incompetently with regularity. But the government wants us to purchase this horse without being able to look closely into its mouth.

At this time, I'm not buying it.

Richard Armstrong

COL Lang,

Thank you for responding to my questions. The poster above is correct, my questions came from Winter Patriot.

Even though I'm a self-described Liberal, to my mind, the most worrisome thing is that this incident was "leaked" to the Military Times.

I don't think the publication of the incident did anything help our nations security. I'm certain that the same list of 70 or so personnel would have been reprimanded and the same corrective measures taken had the Air Force been able to keep this "in the family".

Mark K Logan

I searched and searched for
the article that came out a couple of weeks ago detailing this SNAFU, but was unsuccessful. The gist of it was that the AF equips
the cruise missles with dummy warheads of exactly the same weight as the real ones. They are stored in the same facility. The check prior to flight is to look through a 1" square window for the proper color coded tag. The tech checked the ones on the right outside pylon only, and signed off on the rest without looking. Sounds plausible to me, anyway.
How the wrong ones were mounted on the plane was "classified", but since the ones resposible are being sacked, I am willing to believe they were not ordered to do this.

If this had been some sort of plot I rather think we wouldn't have ever heard about it. Or that the perpetrators were truely monumental wishful thinkers to have simply planned for the personel at the recieving base to not know the color codes.

marquer


...the Advanced Cruise Missile was - and still is - being retired (which means that the once venerable B-52 of SAC fame no longer has a role in nuclear deterrence).

A former USAF type, who still watches program and budget politics within the force, opined to me that the retirement of the ACM is a highly specific gambit by the Air Force brass to finally get rid of the B-52.

There isn't that much need for bulk iron bomb hauling any longer, and plenty of smaller platforms can deliver the reduced tonnage quite effectively. This means that strategic strike with the ACM really was the last viable mission for the good old Stratofortress.

Bear in mind that the budget pressures on the USAF are about to become blindingly intense. They are desperate for more F-22 wings. They flatly require more C-17s (C-5 upgrades are falling flat, the Army and Marine Corps customer base for airlift is bent on growth, and the existing -17 fleet is flying its wing boxes off supporting the twin wars). They need to pay for the Joint Strike Fighter. And the CV-22, which though they are not buying many does not come cheap. They've got to get new tankers. And a new CSAR platform. And the brass are muttering about wanting a manned hypersonic bomber by 2030.

Add to this that they will have to fight with a Navy which is also hungry for costly new programs to replenish its shrinking hull count, as well as contending with the cost required for the aforementioned expansions of the Army and USMC.

Something's got to give.

What the first thing the boss blue-suiters want for that to be, in the opinion of my observant source, is for the B-52 to go away. It's a maintenance-heavy old aircraft at a time when the USAF has been slashing slots for career maint personnel. It burns a lot of fuel at a time when the service's fuel bill is going through the roof.

It will be a real shame to see them retire, but other classic Cold War platforms which were younger than the BUFF have already gone to the boneyards and museums, the USN F-14 Tomcats being the most recent of that cohort.

--

Binh

I do believe that this was a genuine mistake on the part of the people invovled, not some conspiracy theory.

However, my question is: are the nukes being moved back, or are they staying put? The AFB they were moved to had planes flying out of them that bombed Iraq in 1998 and 2003. The reason I ask is because of all the nuclear option speculation being a possibility against Iran.

If the Col or anyone can answer that question it would be much appreciated.

ked

I wouldn't put conspiracy AND stupidity beyond the crowd at the controls in this admin.

Cold War Zoomie

Thanks Pan.

My first duty station was with an Electronic Security Command unit and they were pretty darn uptight about maintenance. Every six months there were inspectors crawling around the place causing every NCO's a*hole to pucker, peering into the ceilings and digging around under the floors looking for our contraband bench stock! And all us technicians always dreaded our periodic personal inspections (weren't those called MSEPs?) Then someone transferred in from a Wyoming missile silo base and their stories made our inspections sound tame. None of us wanted to end up on a SAC base.

The strict adherence with Tech Orders and all the other regs actually caused problems - too much effort trying to meet the *letter* of the law and not the spirit. (ESC's unofficial motto was F*ck the Mission, Clean the Position)

Maybe the AF isn't as anal anymore. I don't know. Doesn't sound like their training is as in-depth as it used to be. We deal with their telephone switch techies routinely. Pretty sad state of affairs.

William R. Cumming

FACT: At one time nuclear surety required that all war reserve weapons were separately identifiable from training weapons. Question: Who gave the order to mate war reserve weapons to a delivery system? Why and when? Question: Do USAF Base Commanders have authority to order mating operations of war reserve weapons?

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