Nukes On A Plane, And Why They Got There

Originally published here.

A B-52H bomber with a full load of 12 Advanced Cruise Missiles under the wings. (Click to enlarge.)

A B-52H bomber with a full load of 12 Advanced Cruise Missiles under the wings. (Click to enlarge.)

Anyone remember the “oh, shit!” nuclear weapons episode of 2007? Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (and their Nuclear Information Project) blogged it:

Michael Hoffman reports in Military Times that five (some say six) nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles were mistakenly flown on a B-52H bomber from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on August 30.

I disclosed in March that the Air Force had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM), and the Minot incident apparently was part of the dismantlement process of the weapon system.

The post is very thorough, and I highly recommend reading it. He goes into detail, explaining how the DoE and DoD keep track of our nuclear weapons, a brief history of how they have been transported via aircraft (including some “incidents”), and how the transfer from Minot Air Force Base was part of decreasing our cruise missile stockpile.

Last month, the Washington Post reported on subsequent changes the Air Force has made in how they handle nuclear weapon transport:

A key change is a firm prohibition against storing nuclear armed and nonnuclear armed weapons in the same storage facility, a contributing factor in the Aug. 29 mix-up. A crew at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., using outdated information, picked up six missiles with dummy warheads and six carrying nuclear warheads from the same storage hangar. The missiles eventually were loaded on a B-52 and flown to Louisiana, where the missiles were to be decommissioned.

“Do not co-mingle nuclear and non-nuclear munitions/missiles . . . in the same storage structure, cell or WS3,” the new instructions state. (A WS3 is an underground vault.) The instructions were first disclosed by Stephen Aftergood on his Secrecy News Web site.

[Click here for Aftergood's post.]

Sounds like a fantastic idea. Too bad they didn’t think of it sooner…

… which leads us to what you’ll find on page A02 of today’s Washington Post. The news is not good:

The Defense Department is displaying a “precipitous decrease in attention” to the security and control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, according to a Defense Science Board task force that examined the broader causes behind the U.S. flight in August of a B-52 bomber that inadvertently carried six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

“The decline in DoD focus has been more pronounced than realized and too extreme to be acceptable,”
the task force said in a report released yesterday by its chairman, retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Welch, who served in the 1980s as head of the Strategic Air Command and later as Air Force chief of staff, told the senators about his concern that “the nation and its leadership do not value the nuclear mission and the people who perform that mission.”

I’ve always said that the last person (next to John McCain) who needs to have thousands and thousands of nukes (on hair-trigger status, mind you) under his control is George W. Bush.

More from the article:

The Welch panel pointed out that Air Force colonels, Navy captains and mid-level civilians are now responsible for managing the Pentagon’s nuclear programs — a task that during the Cold War was handled by senior flag officers or senior civilians. One of the panel’s recommendations is the appointment of an assistant secretary of defense for nuclear enterprise reporting directly to the defense secretary, as well as the naming of flag officers in each of the services who would focus solely on nuclear weapons.

The task force’s findings were reflected in a statement made before the committee by three senior Air Force officers who had supervised two other inquiries after the B-52 flight. They said the Air Force’s once-central focus on its nuclear mission “has diminished since 1991,” after the end of the Cold War. At the same time, they said, “the Air Force began 17 years of continuous combat including conventional air power commitments” using aircraft, such as B-52s, once reserved for nuclear operations.

[Click here (pdf) for the report, "Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety Report: Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons".]

Although it is expected that the Air Force would shift some of its focus from our nuclear mission after the Cold War ended, one would certainly hope that the emphasis on the safety and security of the arsenal would not diminish, especially since we have less nukes than we used to. The key is in Ret. General Welch’s quote above, which bears repeating:

“the nation and its leadership do not value the nuclear mission and the people who perform that mission.”

They just value a different mission. A George W. Bush-style mission:

The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and White House guidance issued in response to the terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001 led to the creation of new nuclear strike options against regional states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to a military planning document obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.

As Meteor Blades pointed out last November, Syria and Iran are on this new nuclear “hit list”.

I’m sure John McCain loves the sound of that.

It’s naive to say that we will never use nuclear weapons.

– John McCain, August 5, 2007, Republican Presidential Debate

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