2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident


2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = 2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident


caption = A B-52H bomber departs Minot Air Force Base
date = August 29–30, 2007
place = Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota and Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana
casus =
result = Six nuclear warheads mishandled and unaccounted for or improperly secured for approximately 36 hours

The 2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident occurred at Minot Air Force Base and Barksdale Air Force Base on August 29–30, 2007. Six AGM-129 ACM cruise missiles, each loaded with a W80-1 variable yield nuclear warhead, were mistakenly loaded on a United States Air Force (USAF) B-52H heavy bomber at Minot and transported to Barksdale. The nuclear warheads in the missiles were supposed to have been removed before taking the missiles from their storage bunker. The missiles with the nuclear warheads were not reported missing and remained mounted to the aircraft at both Minot and Barksdale for a period of 36 hours. During this period, the warheads were not protected by the various mandatory security precautions required for nuclear weapons.

The incident was reported to the top levels of the United States (U.S.) military and referred to by observers as a Bent Spear incident, which indicates a nuclear weapon incident that is of significant concern, but does not involve the immediate threat of nuclear war. The USAF, however, has yet to officially classify the incident.

In response to the incident, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and USAF conducted an investigation, the results of which were released on October 19, 2007. The investigation concluded that nuclear weapons handling standards and procedures had not been followed by numerous USAF personnel involved in the incident. As a result, four USAF commanders were relieved of their commands, numerous other USAF personnel were disciplined and/or decertified to perform certain types of sensitive duties, and further cruise missile transport missions from and nuclear weapons operations at Minot Air Force Base were suspended. In addition, the USAF issued new nuclear weapons handling instructions and procedures. Separate investigations by the U.S. Defense Science Board and a USAF "Blue Ribbon" panel reported that concerns existed on the procedures and processes for handling nuclear weapons within the U.S. DoD but did not find any failures with the security of U.S. nuclear weapons. Based on this and other incidents, on June 5, 2008, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael Moseley, resigned.

Background

Minot Air Force Base is the home of the 5th Bomb Wing and Barksdale Air Force Base the home of 2nd Bomb Wing, both of which fall under the 8th Air Force, also based at Barksdale. The 8th is part of Air Combat Command (ACC) in the USAF. In August 2007 the 5th Bomb Wing was commanded by Colonel Bruce Emig, the 2nd Bomb Wing by Colonel Robert Wheeler, the 8th Air Force by Lieutenant General Robert Elder Jr., and ACC by General Ronald Keys. [Ricks, "Tough Punishment Expected for Warhead Errors", Baker, "Air Force Relieves Commanders Involved in Nuclear Weapons Incident," Air Force Link, [http://www.af.mil/bios/bio.asp?bioID=6051 "General Ronald E. Keys"] .] The 5th Bomb Wing, according to the USAF's statement on the wing's mission, serves with its B-52 bombers as part of the USAF's conventional and strategic combat force. [USAF, [http://www.minot.af.mil/main/welcome.asp Minot Air Force Base 5th Bomb Wing Mission] ] The "strategic" portion of the 5th's mission includes the ability to deliver nuclear weapons against potential targets worldwide. Thus, Minot Air Force Base stores and maintains a ready arsenal of nuclear bombs, nuclear warheads, and associated delivery systems, including, as of August 2007, the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile. [Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker".]

The AGM-129 was fielded in 1987 as a stealthy cruise missile platform to deliver the W80-3 variable yield nuclear warhead. Although originally designed to equip the B-1 bomber, it was later decided that the AGM-129 would only be carried by the B-52, mounted on external pylons on the wings. [Parsch, Andreas, [http://www.designation-systems.net/dusrm/m-129.html AGM-129] ]

In March 2007, the USAF decided to retire its AGM-129 complement in order to help comply with international arms-control treaties and to replace them with AGM-86 missiles. [, Pincus, "4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands," USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton"] In order to do so, the USAF began to transport its AGM-129s stored at Minot by B-52s to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for ultimate disposal. By August 29, 2007 according to the Washington Post, more than 200 AGM-129s had been shipped from Minot to Barksdale in this manner. [Parsch, Andreas, [http://www.designation-systems.net/dusrm/m-129.html AGM-129] , Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker".]

Incident

Between and 09:00 (local time) on August 29, 2007 a group of USAF airmen, called the breakout crew, entered one of the weapons storage bunkers at Minot to prepare AGM-129 missiles for transport to Barksdale. That day's missile transport, the sixth of 12 scheduled ferry missions, was to have consisted of 12 AGM-129s, installed with training warheads, with six missiles per pylon and one pylon mounted under each wing of a Barksdale-assigned, 2nd Bomb Wing B-52 aircraft. When the airmen entered the bunker, six actual warheads were still installed on their missiles, as opposed to having been replaced with the dummy training warheads. A later investigation found that the reason for the error was that the formal electronic scheduling system for tracking the missiles "had been subverted in favor of an informal process that did not identify this pylon as prepared for the flight." [USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Hoffman] The airmen assigned to handle the missiles used an outdated paper schedule that contained incorrect information on the status of the missiles. The missiles originally scheduled for movement had been replaced by missiles closer to expiration dates for limited life components. The change in missiles had been reflected on the movement plan but not in the documents used for internal work coordination processes in the bunker. [Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker", USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Hoffman, "Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake", Pincus, "4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands", Defense Science Board, "Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons".]

Although the breakout crew in the weapons storage began to inspect the missiles, an early-arriving transport crew hooked-up the pylons and towed them away without inspecting or ensuring that the missiles had been inspected or cleared for removal. The munitions control center failed to verify that the pylon had received proper clearance and inspection and approved the pylon for loading on the B-52 aircraft at 09:25. After taking eight hours to attach the pylons to the aircraft, the aircraft with the missiles loaded then remained parked overnight at Minot for 15 hours without special guard as required for nuclear weapons. [Pincus, "4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands", Hoffman, "Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake", Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker", USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Defense Science Board, "Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons".]

On the morning of August 30, one of the transport aircraft's flight officers, a Barksdale-assigned B-52 instructor radar navigator (name unknown), only closely inspected the six missiles on the right wing, which were all properly uploaded with training warheads, before signing the manifest listing the cargo as a dozen unarmed AGM-129 missiles. The B-52 command pilot did not do a final verification check before preparing to depart Minot. [Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker", Hoffman, "Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake", USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Pincus, "4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands".]

The B-52 departed Minot at 08:40 and landed at Barksdale at 11:23 (local times) on August 30. The aircraft remained parked and without special guard until , when a munitions team arrived to remove the missiles. After a member of the munitions crew noticed something unusual about some of the missiles, at 22:00 a "skeptical" supervisor finally determined that nuclear warheads were present and ordered them secured and the incident reported, 36 hours after the missiles were removed from the bunker at Minot. [Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker", USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Hoffman, "Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake".]

about the incident. As of March 2008, the USAF has yet to officially designate what type of incident actually occurred, Bent Spear or otherwise. [Gilmore, " Air Force Investigates Alleged Nuke Transfer, Pentagon Spokesman Says".] The incident was the first of its kind in 40 years in the United States and was later described by the media as "one of the worst breaches in U.S. nuclear weapons security in decades". [Ricks, "Tough Punishment Expected for Warhead Errors", Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker"]

Response by the U.S. government

The USAF and DoD at first decided to conceal the incident, in part because of the USAF policy not to comment on the storage or movement of nuclear weapons and an apparent belief that the incident would not generate much public concern. In fact, the DoD incident report contained the statement, "No press interest anticipated." Details of the incident, however, were leaked by unknown DoD officials to the Military Times newspaper, which published a small article about the incident on September 5 2007. [Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker"]

In response, in a September 5 news briefing in the Pentagon by Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, it was stated that at no time was the public in any danger and that military personnel had custody of the weapons at all times. The USAF announced that within days of the incident, the USAF relieved the Minot munitions squadron commander and eventually disciplined 25 airmen. USAF Major General Doug Raaberg was assigned by General Keys to lead an investigation into the incident. The USAF inventory of nuclear warheads was checked to ensure that all warheads were accounted for. In addition, the DoD announced that a Pentagon-appointed scientific advisory panel, called the Defense Science Board, would study the mishap as part of a larger review of procedures for handling nuclear weapons. On September 28, the USAF announced that General Keys was retiring and would be replaced as ACC commander by General John Corley, effective October 2. [Dorfner, "After four decades, General Keys calls it a career", Gilmore, "Air Force Investigates Alleged Nuke Transfer, Pentagon Spokesman Says," Randolph, "Air Force releases B-52 munitions transfer investigation results", Warrick, "Missteps in the Bunker", USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", USAF, "General Corley takes command of ACC", Hoffman, "Generals grilled on Minot nuclear mishap".]

On October 19, 2007, U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and USAF Major General Richard Newton, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements, announced the investigation report findings, stating that, "there has been an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards at Minot Air Force Base and at Barksdale Air Force Base" and that "... a limited number of airmen at both locations failed to follow procedures." [USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton".] Colonel Emig, the commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, Colonel Cynthia Lundell, the commander of the 5th Maintenance Group at Minot, and Colonel Todd Westhauser, the commander of Barksdale's 2nd Operations Group, and four senior non-commissioned officers from the 5th Munitions Squadron "received administrative action" and were relieved of their commands or positions and reassigned. All of the 5th Bomb Wing personnel were stripped of their certifications to handle nuclear and other sensitive weaponry and to conduct "specific missions". Sixty-five airmen of varying ranks lost their personnel reliability program certifications. [Holmes, "Minot bomb wing gets new commander Thursday", Hoffman, Michael, "Minot Nuke Handlers Still Not Ready For Inspection", "Military Times", January 14, 2008.] Tactical ferry operations were suspended. The inspector general offices of all USAF major commands that handle nuclear weapons were directed to conduct immediate "Limited Nuclear Surety Inspections (LNSIs) at every nuclear-capable unit" with oversight provided by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. [Randolph, "Air Force releases B-52 munitions transfer investigation results", Hoffman, "Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake", "Baker, "Air Force Relieves Commanders Involved in Nuclear Weapons Incident," USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Pincus, "4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands", Randolph, "Air Force releases B-52 munitions transfer investigation results".]

The new ACC commander, General Corley, referred the matter to USAF Lieutenant General Norman Seip, commander of the 12th Air Force, as a court-martial convening authority to determine if additional charges or actions would be taken against any of the personnel involved in the incident. Seip later closed the investigation without recommending criminal charges against anyone involved. [Starr, "Air Force officers relieved of duty over loose nukes", USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton, Hoffman, Michael, "Minot Nuke Handlers Still Not Ready For Inspection", "Military Times", January 14, 2008.] Retired USAF General Larry Welch was asked by Gates, who had reportedly raised concerns with USAF officials that the original investigation may have unfairly limited blame to midlevel officers, to lead the Defense Science Board advisory panel that would study the mishap as part of a larger review of procedures and policies for handling nuclear weapons. In addition, the USAF chartered a "Blue Ribbon Review" chaired by USAF Major General Polly Peyer and consisting of 30 members to "make recommendations as to how we can improve the Air Force's capability to safely and securely perform our nuclear weapons responsibility". [USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Hoffman, "237 nuke handling deficiencies cited since 2001".] Furthermore, the U.S. Congress requested that the DoD and U.S. Department of Energy conduct a bottom-up review of nuclear procedures. [Pincus, "4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands", USDoD, "DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton", Baker, "Air Force Relieves Commanders Involved in Nuclear Weapons Incident", Hoffman, "Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake", Hoffman, "Generals grilled on Minot nuclear mishap", Spiegel, "U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find".]

Aftermath

USAF actions

Colonel Joel Westa took command of the 5th Bomb Wing. [Holmes, "Minot bomb wing gets new commander Thursday"] That same day, General Keys retired from the Air Force. [Air Force Link, [http://www.af.mil/bios/bio.asp?bioID=6051 "General Ronald E. Keys"] .]

Personnel from Barksdale's 2nd Bomb Wing temporarily took over maintenance duties of Minot's nuclear stockpile until the 5th Bomb Wing could be recertified. A nuclear surety inspection (NSI), required for recertification, originally scheduled for the 5th Bomb Wing for January 23, 2008 was postponed after the wing failed an initial NSI that took place on December 16, 2007. [Hoffman, Michael, "Minot Nuke Handlers Still Not Ready For Inspection", "Military Times", January 14, 2008, MacPherson, "Minot chief sets bar high after nuke gaffe".] Another initial NSI was completed on March 29 and Corley recertified the wing on March 31, 2008. A full NSI was scheduled for May 2008. The wing needed to regain its certification in order to hold the full NSI, said Major Elizabeth Ortiz, a Minot spokeswoman. Units handling nuclear weapons must pass NSIs every 18 months in order to retain their certifications. [Hoffman, Michael, "Minot bomb wing recertified for nukes", "Military Times", April 4, 2008; "Los Angeles Times", "Bomb Wing Recertified", April 4, 2008.]

The USAF issued a new policy directive regarding the handling of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, which prohibits the storing of nuclear armed and nonnuclear armed weapons in the same storage facility. The directive further instructs that all nonnuclear munitions and missiles must be labeled with placards clearly stating that they are not armed with nuclear warheads. Wing commanders are now charged with approving any movement of nuclear weapons from weapons storage areas and must appoint a single individual as a munitions accountability system officer and weapons custodian. All units that handle nuclear weapons must develop a coordinated visual inspection checklist. The policy further directs that airmen charged with handling or maintaining nuclear weapons cannot be on duty for longer than 12 hours, unless during an emergency, when their duty period can be extended to a maximum of 16 hours. [Pincus, "Air Force Alters Rules for Handling of Nuclear Arms"] , Hoffman, "New nuke-handling procedures issued".]

Review reports

. In addition to Welch and Peyer, Lieutenant General Daniel Darnell, USAF deputy chief of staff for air, space and information operations and Major General Raaberg testified and answered questions from the senate committee's members. During the hearing, Welch stated that, "The military units responsible for handling the bombs are not properly inspected and, as a result, may not be ready to perform their missions." He added, "If you look at all the areas and all the ways that we have to store and handle these weapons in order to perform the mission, it just requires, we believe, more resources and more attention than they're getting." [Spiegel, "U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find".] Welch's report concluded that the combining of DoD nuclear forces with nonnuclear organizations has led to "markedly reduced levels of leadership whose daily focus is the nuclear enterprise and a general devaluation of the nuclear mission and those who perform the mission." Nevertheless, neither Welch's nor Peyer's reports found any failures with the security of U.S. nuclear weapons. [Spiegel, "U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find", Hoffman, "Generals grilled on Minot nuclear mishap", Defense Science Board, "Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons".]

Responding to Welch's and Peyer's reports, USAF officials stated that they were already implementing many of the recommendations contained in the reports but added that existing regulations governing nuclear procedures were satisfactory. During his testimony before the senate committee, Darnell stated, "The Air Force portion of the nuclear deterrent is sound, and we will take every measure necessary to provide safe, secure, reliable nuclear surety to the American public." [Spiegel, "U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find", Defense Science Board, "Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons".]

NSI and resignations

Minot's full NSI took place beginning on May 17, 2008 and was conducted by inspectors from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the AF's Air Combat Command (ACC). On May 25, the DTRA issued the 5th Bomb Wing an "unsatisfactory" rating, the lowest rating possible, from the inspection. The 5th passed the inspection in nine of ten areas, but failed in the area of nuclear security. Following the inspection, Westa stated, "Overall their assessment painted a picture of some things we need to work on in the areas of training and discipline". [Hoffman, "Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing flunks nuclear inspection"] The 5th Bomb Wing Security Forces Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Worley, was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Weaver on June 16, 2008. [Hoffman, "Minot nuke handlers pass re-inspection"] In spite of failing the NSI, the wing kept it's nuclear certification. Said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists about the 5th's failure in the inspection, "It makes you wonder what’s going on elsewhere, like the nuclear weapons stationed at bases overseas, and at Barksdale Air Force Base and Whiteman Air Force Base." [Associated Press, "Air Force wing in nuclear goof has more trouble", Hoffman, "Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing flunks nuclear inspection"] Minot passed the follow-up inspection on August 15, 2008. [Hoffman, "Minot nuke handlers pass re-inspection"]

Propulsion, found that the Taiwan missile incident was, in Gates' words, "A degradation of the authority, standards of excellence and technical competence within the nation's ICBM force. Similar to the bomber-specific August 2007 Minot-Barksdale nuclear weapons transfer incident, this incident took place within the larger environment of declining Air Force nuclear mission focus and performance" and that "the investigation identified commonalities between the August 2007 Minot incident and this [the Taiwan] event." In his investigation report, Donald stated that the issues identified by his investigation were, "Indicative of an overall decline in Air Force nuclear weapons stewardship, a problem that has been identified but not effectively addressed for over a decade. Both the Minot-Barksdale nuclear weapons transfer incident and the Taiwan misshipment, while different in specifics, have a common origin: the gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight by Air Force leadership" [US DoD, "DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates from the Pentagon", "Military Times", "Moseley and Wynne forced out", Shanker, "2 Leaders Ousted From Air Force in Atomic Errors".]

As a result of the investigation, Gates announced that, "A substantial number of Air Force general officers and colonels have been identified as potentially subject to disciplinary measures, ranging from removal from command to letters of reprimand," and that he had accepted the resignations of USAF Secretary Michael Wynne and USAF Chief of Staff Michael Moseley. Gates added that he had asked James R. Schlesinger to lead a senior-level task force to recommend improvements in the stewardship and operation of nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and sensitive components by the US DoD. Members of the task force came from the Defense Policy Board and the Defense Science Board. [US DoD, "DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates from the Pentagon", June 5, 2008, "Military Times", "Moseley and Wynne forced out", Shanker, "2 Leaders Ousted From Air Force in Atomic Errors".]

On September 13, 2008, Gates announced Schlesinger's task force's recommendations by calling on the USAF to place all nuclear weapons under a single command. The task force suggested that the new command be called Air Force Strategic Command, which would replace the current Air Force Space Command, and make it accountable for the nuclear mission. It also called for all USAF bombers to be placed under a single command. The task force also recommended that the USAF move an additional 1,500 to 2,000 airmen into nuclear-related jobs. Gates announced that acting Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Chief of Staff General Norton A. Schwartz were "reviewing the recommendations" for disciplinary action against USAF officers previously involved in the nuclear mission. [Tyson, Ann Scott, " [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/12/AR2008091203157.html Unified Nuclear Command Urged] ", Washington Post, September 13, 2008, pg. 8.] The task force found an, "an unambiguous, dramatic and unacceptable decline in the Air Force’s commitment to perform the nuclear mission and, until very recently, little has been done to reverse it." [Associated Press, " [http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/13/washington/13military.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss Panel Urges Air Force to Unify Nuclear Command] ", New York Times, September 13, 2008, Pg. 15.]

On September 25, 2008, the United States Department of Defense announced that six Air Force and two Army generals and nine colonels had received letters of reprimand, admonishment, or concern because of this incident. Two Air Force major generals were asked to stay in their current position; the others either retired, planned to retire, or were removed from their position. Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz met with each officer personally before issuing the letters. He noted they committed no offense under the UCMJ, but "did not do enough to carry out their leadership responsibilities for nuclear oversight. "For that they must be held accountable." The discipline was in response to the mistaken shipment of nuclear fuses to Taiwan, not for the Minot nuclear weapons incident. [The Associated Press. "Military cites poor oversight in mistaken shipment of warheads to Taiwan". MSNBC, Thurs., Sept. 25, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26892774/; accessed 2008-09-26.]

Notes

References

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url = http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4067
title = DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
format = Transcript
work = DefenseLink
accessdate = 2007-10-21

*cite web
last = United States Department of Defense (USDoD)
first = Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
coauthors =
date = June 5, 2008
url = http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4236
title = DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates from the Pentagon
format = Transcript
work = DefenseLink
accessdate = 2008-06-06

*cite web | last = Warrick| first = Joby| coauthors = Walter Pincus| date = September 23, 2007| url = http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2007/09/23/ST2007092300048.html?sid=ST2007092300048| title = Missteps in the Bunker| work = Washington Post| accessdate = 2007-09-24

Further reading

* cite book
last = Gibson
first = James N.
coauthors =
year = 2000
title = Nuclear Weapons of the United States: An Illustrated History
publisher = Schiffer Publishing
location =
id = ISBN 0764300636

*cite web
last = Ryan
first = Bill, and Kerry Cassidy
date = October 29, 2007
url = http://www.projectcamelot.org/barksdale.html
title = Project Camelot In tribute: 9 Minot and Barksdale AFB Airmen, 2007
format =
work = Project Camelot
accessdate = 2008-03-13
- Alternative theory on deaths supposedly related to the incident


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