A new report on the August 30 incident in which six nuclear-armed advanced cruise missiles were effectively “lost” for 36 hours, during which time they were, against all regulations, flown in launch position mounted on a pylon on the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress, from Minot AFB in North Dakota across the continental US to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, has left unanswered some critical questions about the event.
Directed by retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch, the task force’s Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons found plenty wrong with the way the US military handles its nuclear weapons, but appears to have dealt lightly with the specific incident that sparked the inquiry—only giving it a few paragraphs.
According to the report, when nuclear-capable missiles are placed onto a pylon assembly (in the case of the B-52, these pylons can hold six missiles), procedures call for a clear distinction to be made as to whether they are armed with nuclear weapons or with dud warheads. In the storage bunker, pylons with dud warheads are supposed to be encircled with orange cones like those used by highway repair crews, and placards announcing that the warheads are duds are supposed to be hung on all four sides. This reportedly was not done, leaving no distinction between one pylon containing six nuclear-armed missiles, and two others that had missiles carrying nukes.
A second failure was in record keeping. According to regulations for handling nuclear weapons, every step in moving a nuke requires written verification and manual checking. When the weapons were taken from storage racks and installed on the missiles, there should have been written records, including the serial numbers of each warhead. When a breakout crew moved the nuclear-armed missiles on the pylon and passed it to a convoy crew for removal from the storage bunker to the airfield for mounting on the plane, there was supposed to be a visual verification of the warheads by the convoy crew, and another written record of the transfer of ownership. When the convoy crew handed over the pylon to the crew chief for mounting on the plane, there was supposed to be another warhead verification check by the crew chief and another written record. Finally, the aircrew was required to verify the payload, warhead by warhead.
Reportedly, none of these steps were taken. In other words, there was a failure to check the payloads of the missiles not just once but at every step of the way—an astounding breakdown in controls and procedures, which at a minimum suggests that the US nuclear arsenal is as vulnerable to theft, extortion and nefarious misuse as those in the former Soviet Union or in Pakistan—not a pleasant thought.
A third failure, more systemic, which was identified in this latest report, was a general decline—even a breakdown—in the decades-long tradition of high standards and professionalism in the US nuclear force itself. The Strategic Air Command, which oversaw all nuclear equipment, has been eliminated, and command and control of nuclear weapons have been integrated into the regular forces, right down to the storage of nuclear devices themselves, which are now routinely kept together with conventional warheads—a recipe for disaster not just because of the kind of confusion that allegedly led to the Aug. 30 incident, but also because of the possibility of accidents in which a non-nuclear device could detonate, scattering nuclear debris. Furthermore, the report documents that the nuclear force, once a prime career choice for advancement-minded military professionals, has become a dumping ground for mediocrity—a place where military personnel go to be forgotten. Pilots of B-52s, for example, no longer even get nuclear certified—so unlikely is it that they will be called upon to fly nuclear missions, the report states.
The report is a catalog of failure and ineptitude, and should lead to a complete overhaul. But it is also failure itself.
This is because as disastrous as the picture it paints of America’s nuclear forces and handling procedures may be, the report also ignores the big questions that remain about the recent incident which led to the Welch investigation in the first place. Primary among these questions is why, if all the various teams that handled the six nuclear-tipped Advanced Cruise Missiles up at Minot, from the guards and handlers in the storage bunker to the pilots, failed to note that the warheads on the missiles were nukes, was the ground crew that went out onto the tarmac to service the plane after it landed at Barksdale able to spot them and identify them as nukes almost immediately upon arriving at the plane?
After all, the personnel at Minot knew they were handling weapons in a bunker, and coming from a bunker, that stored nuclear weapons, and so should have been on alert to the possibility. The crew at Barksdale, however, had absolutely no reason to expect nuclear weapons. Not only was the delivery of these cruise missiles to Barksdale part of a long, on-going routine process of ferrying the obsolete weapons in for decommissioning and destruction. In addition, for the last 40 years, it has been against military rules to fly nuclear weapons over domestic airspace except in specially outfitted military cargo planes. That is to say, prior to this incident no B-52 or other bomber has carried a nuclear weapon in launch position over US territory since 1967!
Given that history, one has to assume that the warheads on those six missiles on the pylon must have been literally screaming out that they were nukes, for the ground crew to have noticed.
Surely Gen. Welch and his colleagues should have addressed the question of why those Barksdale workers were so easily able to spot the “mistake” while, allegedly, no one in the chain of possession of the weapons at Minot managed to do it.
The position of the report was clearly, from the start, that this whole thing was a mistake. That is to say, its conclusion was foreordained. But we should know from the incredible, bald-faced lie about the reason for shooting down a spy satellite last week—that it posed an environmental and health threat because of a relatively small 1000 lb. fuel tank containing toxic hydrazine fuel that allegedly could make it to earth and then pose a health threat—that Pentagon explanations are often dishonest, or deliberately confusing. (Hyrdazine is no more dangerous than many toxic chemicals, and for someone to seriously be put at risk, he or she would have to walk up to the smoking tank after it hit earth, and hang around the noxious vapors breathing them in for some time—something few people would be likely to do. Moreover, the probability of an explosive fuel tank making it through searing re-entry to ground without bursting and releasing the material harmlessly in the upper atmosphere was always negligible. The explanation for the $60-million missile shot was clearly a cover-up of a Pentagon scheme to test its space-warfare capability without having to admit what it was doing.)
Could the Minot nuke incident have been something other than a mistake?
A careful reading of the Welch report—both what it says and what it fails to say—has to leave that question unanswered.
Recall that back in August and September, the Bush/Cheney administration was, as it is now, ratcheting up the talk about an attack on Iran over its nuclear activities and over its alleged support for insurgent attacks on American troops in Iraq. While the military top brass, as well as the secretary of defense are known, for the most part, to oppose such plans, there certainly are some, particularly within the Air Force, who have a higher opinion of the effectiveness of airpower,
Recall too that in the weeks and days prior to and immediately following the Aug. 30 Minot nuke incident, no fewer than six airmen associated with Minot, Barksdale and the B-52 fleet died either in vehicle accidents or alleged suicides. One of the two suicides involved a Minot airman whose job was guarding the base’s nuclear weapons storage facilities. The Welch report doesn’t even mention this strange cluster of deaths—none of which has even been investigated by the military, according to local police and medical examiners contacted.
Could someone at the top level of government—perhaps the Vice President, who is particularly belligerent towards Iran—have attempted to set up an alternative chain of command to “spring” a few unaccounted for nukes for use in some kind of “false flag” or rogue operation that, were it to succeed, could set a war against Iran in motion? Barksdale AFB, it should be noted, bills itself as the main staging base for B-52s being sent overseas for Middle East duty.
The way the Aug. 30 incident came to light–which was thanks to Air Force whistleblowers who contacted a reporter at the Military Times newspaper publishing office—makes such an idea seem at least plausible. Clearly, some uniformed personnel were so upset at what happened that they were willing to risk their military careers to go outside of the chain of command and alert the public in the only way they knew how. Clearly too, they were so distrustful of their superiors, right on up to the office of the Secretary of Defense, that they did not consider taking their information to anyone within the Pentagon.
Maybe it’s asking too much to expect a retired general, tasked to investigate this incident by the Secretary of Defense who himself was appointed by the White House, to look into such a theory, which after all if true would represent an act of treason. And yet, the failure of this report to at least explore the idea makes it into something of a cover-up.
The obvious answer here is that Congress should be holding public hearings into the incident, and asking these tough questions. Incredibly, this has not happened. The Democratic-led Congress, here as in virtually every issue that has come before it (with the exception of steroids in professional sports!), has ducked its responsibility. In this case Congress has been content to let Air Force officials, behind closed doors, offer them information about the incident—which is a far cry from holding hearings where the officers would be grilled under oath about what they know.
Given this gutless and irresponsible behavior by legislators who, I am sure, would be holding high-profile hearings had the same kind of incident occurred in Russia, China, or Pakistan, we are left having to hope that someone with real knowledge of what happened at Minot will come forward and tell the story to a reporter.
For the record, I’m ready and waiting, pen in hand…
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