A great inside look at a Pentagon after-action report on that embarrassing nuke flub where the Air Force flew a couple doomsday weapons across the US without even knowing it.
Let's hope this report doesn't just collect dust on some general's shelf and that the recommendations are actually implemented.
From our friends at Popular Mechanics:
One might think that the United States' nuclear weapons -- the cornerstone deterrent in the country's arsenal -- would be treated with the utmost precision.
This comfortable illusion was shaken on Aug. 31, 2007, when crews loaded six live nuclear warheads onto a B-52 bomber and flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, cruising over the nation's heartland. Each warhead was 10 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
During the analysis of the incident by the Defense Science Board (DSB), released this month, the ugly truth came out: America's nukes are so neglected that they are stored alongside conventional missiles, with nothing but an 8.5 x 11-in. sheet of paper to differentiate the two. The last day in August, Air Force personnel loaded the nuclear warheads on a routine repositioning of weapons stocks, believing them to be cruise missiles.
The system of checks and balances has degraded to a point that six of the planet's most powerful weapons were missing for 36 hours -- and no one noticed until they had landed in Louisiana. "The process and systemic problems that allowed such an incident have developed over more than a decade and have the potential for much more serious consequences," the report warns.
So what can be learned by this near miss, and how can something worse be avoided?
1. No one Air Force command is solely responsible for taking care of nuclear weapons.
There are plenty of weapons systems and missions out there, and each one is more exciting and has a higher priority within the command structure.
The DSB report notes that, after the demise of Strategic Air Command, three operational Air Force commands took over the nation's nuclear weapons: ICBMs went to Air Force Space Command; bombers went to Air Combat Command, and Air Mobility Command retained ownership of the refueling portion of the bomber missions. That means that there is no one central place where the nuclear mission -- upkeep, training and such -- is the primary mission. So the nukes got lost in the post-Cold War shuffle.
Recommendations in the report include the establishment of an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Enterprise to focus solely on nuclear missions. This person would report directly to the Secretary of Defense. The DSB report notes that the U.S. Navy, which handles nuclear missiles in its submarine fleet, has a system that keeps those weapons under one banner, "Strategic Systems Programs." It's commanded by a rear admiral, whereas in the Air Force the highest rank with a primary, daily focus on nukes is that of colonel. "While the attack submarines no longer routinely carry nuclear missiles, the submarine forces retain their nuclear legacy and nuclear focus," the report says.
2. Human error was at the heart of the incident.
The staff at Minot Air Field had neglected to follow procedure for the sake of saving time. The verification of weapons -- what kind, what warheads they carry, their armament status -- should take about 45 minutes, and be performed before anything else happens.
"But, over time, to speed the process, breakout and convoy crews had established a process of concurrent activity," the report states. "In this case, the breakout and convoy crew [at Minot] were connecting the trailer to the tow vehicle while the initial status verification was under way." The checks had become pro forma, and a near disaster slipped through.
Indeed, the gaff that allowed six nukes out over three major American cities (Omaha, Neb., Kansas City, Mo., and Little Rock, Ark.) could have been avoided if the Air Force personnel had followed procedure.
"Let's not forget that the existing rules were pretty tight," says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists. "Much of what went wrong occurred because people didn't follow these tight rules. You can have all sorts of rules and regulations, but they still won't do any good if the people don't follow them."
In fact, some see the incident as a way to draw attention to the importance of the job of babysitting nukes. "This review gave the Air Force the opportunity to improve on an already sound nuclear enterprise," says Col. West Anderson, vice commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. "We handle weapons safely and ensure the highest possible standards of individual reliability and professional competence."