WASHINGTON — The Air Force has begun an investigation to find out how it mistakenly flew six nuclear bombs on a B-52 bomber from North Dakota to Louisiana last week in an apparent violation of military guidelines.
U.S. military officials say the incident was a fluke and never exposed residents of several states to danger. But military experts and members of Congress said it could point to larger flaws in the government's system for monitoring the transport, storage and decommissioning of nuclear weapons.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
B-52 bomber: The caption on a photo in Thursday's Section A with an article about nuclear bombs carried on a B-52 bomber said the picture was from 2001. The model of B-52 shown was retired in 1994.
"It suggests nuclear weapons could be moved by mistake," said Steve Fetter, dean of the University of Maryland's school of public policy.
Lawmakers condemned the error, calling it embarrassing for the U.S. "As the lone superpower in the world, America must continue to lead by example and ensure our nuclear assets are protected with the highest safeguards," said a joint statement by Reps. James H. Saxton (R-N.J.) and Terry Everett (R-Ala.).
After news reports detailing the incident, the Air Force released a statement acknowledging an "error" in the transfer of weapons Aug. 30 between Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Defense officials, citing confidentiality requirements, would not provide the B-52's precise flight path.
The weapons consisted of six nuclear cruise missiles mounted under the B-52's wings, a departure from Air Force procedures that call for nuclear warheads to be transported as cargo.
The Air Force issued its statement after details of the flight were reported Wednesday by the Military Times newspaper, which is not affiliated with the Defense Department. But Air Force officials said the weapons remained fully in military "custody and control" throughout the trip and never jeopardized public safety.
Military experts confirmed Air Force accounts that safety devices within the nuclear missiles would have prevented them from being set off accidentally, even if the plane had crashed. But outside experts said the nuclear weapons potentially could have leaked, or exploded, causing widespread contamination.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee and co-chairman of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, called the incident "absolutely inexcusable" and said it held "frightening implications."
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the incident "deeply disturbing" and vowed to monitor the military investigation.
A military source who asked not to be named because of the pending investigation said the cruise missiles aboard the plane that left Minot air base were to be decommissioned, or retired. However, the military normally separates nuclear warheads from other cruise missile components. The nuclear devices then are flown to a decommissioning site in New Mexico aboard cargo planes, not bombers, military experts said.
Air Force Lt. Col. Edward Thomas said he could not confirm that the weapons mistakenly flown to Louisiana on Aug. 30 were nuclear, citing Defense Department policy. But he said Air Force staff briefed lawmakers about the incident this week, and congressional staffers confirmed that they were told the weapons were nuclear.
Air Force bombers stopped flying with live nuclear weapons in the late 1960s after several crashes, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
The last publicly disclosed flight of a B-52 loaded with nuclear bombs crashed in Greenland in 1968 while carrying four hydrogen bombs that ruptured on impact, spewing radioactive material.
Nuclear payload issues are closely bound up in U.S. arms control commitments over the decades. In 1991, as President George H.W. Bush negotiated with Soviet leaders to reduce nuclear arsenals, he issued a unilateral declaration that as part of a larger disarmament push, U.S. strategic bombers would shed their nuclear weapons, leaving them in storage.
Depending on the outcome of the military probe, last week's flight could invite international criticism of U.S. adherence to its own past promises.
As part of the investigation, Thomas said, Air Force commanders have removed a munition squadron commander from duty, suspended some of the airmen involved, and ordered a "stand down" of nonessential flights for a daylong self-assessment Sept. 14.
President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates were informed of the incident, said a Pentagon spokesman, and Gates requested daily updates on the Air Force investigation.
A nuclear security breach that puts powerful weapons in the hands of militants has always seemed more likely overseas than in the U.S. The collapse of the Soviet Union heightened concerns over "loose nukes" from poorly guarded stockpiles that could be bought or stolen by rogue groups.
However, military experts dismiss domestic fears of "loose nukes" within the U.S., noting that the weapons transported Aug. 30 were always in the possession of the military.
But the incident raises questions about nuclear security at a time when Congress is considering military proposals to update U.S. nuclear weapons and replace some atomic warheads with conventional munitions.
"This raises this terrible worst-case scenario where we're in wartime and the system loses control over what weapon is loaded where," Kristensen said.
Whatever the results of the Air Force investigation, Kristensen said, military commanders now face the tough task of persuading Congress and concerned citizens that they can be trusted to manage the nation's nuclear arsenal.
"They have to regain public confidence and be able to explain in a credible way that we're not flying sometimes with nukes, sometimes not," he said.