“The [U.S.] Air Force has made substantial changes in its handling of nuclear weapons in the wake of a B-52 flight last August during which the pilots and crew were unaware they were carrying six air-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.”
— “Air Force Alters Rules for Handling of Nuclear Arms,” Washington Post January 25, 2008.
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, JANUARY 25–At a press conference in Islamabad today, Pakistani Brig. Gen. Atta M. Iqhman expressed concern about U.S. procedures for handling nuclear weapons. Iqhman, who oversees the safety and security of the Pakistani nuclear force, said that U.S. protocols for storing and handling nuclear weapons are inadequate. “In Pakistan, we store nuclear warheads separately from their delivery systems, and a nuclear warhead can only be activated if three separate officers agree,” Iqhman said. “In the United States, almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons still sit atop missiles, on hair-trigger alert, and it only takes two launch-control officers to activate a nuclear weapon. The U.S. government has persistently ignored arms control experts around the world who have said they should at least de-alert their weapons.”
Iqhman also questioned the adequacy of U.S. procedures for handling nuclear weapons. He expressed particular concern about the August 29, 2007, incident in which six nuclear weapons were accidentally loaded under the wing of a B-52 by workers who did not observe routine inspection procedures and thought they were attaching conventional weapons to the B-52. The flight navigator should have caught their mistake, but he neglected to inspect the weapons as required. For several hours the nuclear weapons were in the air without anyone’s knowledge. “The United States needs to develop new protocols for storing and loading nuclear weapons, and it needs to do a better job of recruiting and training the personnel who handle them,” Iqhman said.
The Pentagon has been stonewalling on my requests for answers to key questions. For two weeks, a public affairs office has been declining to respond to my question about whether the six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flown by a B-52 from Minot AFB to Barksdale AFB were programmed for specific targets, and, if so, what those targets were or even whether the team that investigated the incident checked to see if they were targeted.
The Air Force and Pentagon have also declined to explain whether U.S. nuclear weapons in storage in U.S. bunkers have been provided with the same alarm and motion-detection sensors that the National Nuclear Security Agency helped to install on the nukes being stored on Russian bases.
Clearly if such devices are standard on U.S. nukes, as several Air Force active and retired personnel have assured me is the case, then there is no way those weapons could have been removed from the Minot bunker by “mistake” as claimed the Air Force’s official report on the incident.
The Pentagon has also refused to state whether the missiles were fueled up or not.
“It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.” — Pentagon official
There is something deeply disturbing about the Air Force’s official report on the Aug. 29-30 “bent spear” incident that saw six nuclear warheads get mounted on six Advanced Cruise Missiles and improperly removed from a nuclear weapons storage bunker at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, then get improperly loaded on a B-52, and then get improperly flown to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana — a report that attributed the whole thing to a “mistake.”
According to the Air Force report, some Air Force personnel mounted the warheads on the missiles (which are obsolete and slated for destruction), and another ground crew, allegedly not aware that the missiles were armed with nukes, moved them out and mounted them on a launch pylon on the B-52’s wing for a flight to Barksdale and eventual dismantling. Only on the ground at Barksdale did ground crew personnel spot the nukes, according to the report. (Six other missiles with dummy warheads were mounted on a pylon on the other wing of the plane.)
The problem with this explanation for the first reported case of nukes being removed from a weapons bunker without authorization in 50 years of nuclear weapons, is that those warheads, and all nuclear warheads in the U.S. stockpile, are supposedly protected against unauthorized transport or removal from bunkers by electronic antitheft systems — automated alarms similar to those used by department stores to prevent theft, and even anti-motion sensors that go off if a weapon is touched or approached without authorization.