Jeffrey LewisOrg Theory and the Barksdale Bombs

I do not find compelling the speculation, suggested by Larry Johnson and others, that the nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles that mistakenly ended up at Barksdale Air Force Base were being staged for an attack on Iran.

Pilots, crews and all those associated with handling nuclear weapons do make mistakes, as a casual reading of Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons will demonstrate. Indeed, the fact that the bombs sat on the tarmac for ten hours because no one quite believed that such an accident could happen will make excellent fodder for organizational theorists:

Sources in the Air Force say it took [ten hours] because the airmen who first discovered the bombs could not believe what they were seeing and had a hard time convincing superiors that the missiles on the bomber were, in fact, carrying nuclear weapons.

New Routines?

Accidents theory provides a clue as to where to look for explanations. One possibility is that the accident arose from a change in procedure. In particular, the lapse may have resulted from new or unfamiliar procedures associated with retiring the Advanced Cruise Missile.

That possibility is suggested by the original Military Times story, in which Michael Hoffman writes that “The B-52 was loaded with Advanced Cruise Missiles, part of a Defense Department effort to decommission 400 of the ACMs.” [emphasis mine.]

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell confirmed the “the munitions were part of a routine transfer between the two bases …”

Alert Levels?

New procedures for retirement, however, are not the only organizational changes that offer candidate explanations for this particular episode. Investigators and Congress should also ask whether or not the May 2004 Interim Global Strike Alert Order may have contributed to the security lapses that allowed missions crews to load six nuclear weapons on a B-52 and the pilots to fly the nuclear weapons to Louisiana.

In May 2004, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed the Interim Global Strike Alert Order. Now, STRATCOM has not made public much about this order, although General Cartwright testified that:

With close cooperation of the Air Force and Navy, SECDEF just signed the Interim Global Strike Alert Order, which provides the President a prompt, global strike capability. Today, we rely upon Navy Tomahawk missiles and Air Force bombers carrying conventional cruise missiles, Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other gravity released weapons to provide this kinetic-kill solution, and our global command and control reach.”

At the time, Bill Arkin suggested that the purpose of the order was “directing the military to assume and maintain readiness to attack hostile countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction, specifically Iran and North Korea.”

Regardless of the intention, though, orders change organizational routines. Some sense of the impact of this particular order on organizational life is evident from an interview, in the Shreveport Times, with General Bruce Carlson, then-commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale:

[Carlson completed] his third main assignment, to change the way 8th Air Force operates in order to meet new jobs given it by U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, in what are called Global Strike missions. In these, Stratcom, or the president or defense secretary, calls 8th Air Force and describes what needs to be done. And in half a day or less, it has to come up with the means and methods to do that, with surveillance and intelligence before the mission and reconnaissance after to determine the success of the operation.

“We’re now at the point where we are essentially on alert,” Carlson said. “We have the capacity to plan and execute Global Strikes on their command.”

That represents a major change in the way 8th Air Force operates, he said.

“When I got here, we were essentially a bomber command, bomber-centric. We are now still the Air Force’s bomber command, but we are so much more than that. We are Stratcom’s focal point for global strike.”

Now, as I read Carlson’s remarks, this “alert” refers largely to the mission planning features of the global strike mission. But much of the language — places I’ve marked in italics — should set off alarm bells to the interested organizational theorist.

If the order resulted in changes to operational procedures for those supporting the Air Force bombers and conventional cruise missiles, the one might expect a rise in security mishaps as well as the rare newsworthy lapse like the one we saw this week.


Of course, these two suggested areas of inquiry — the effect of the planned retirement of the ACM and organizational changes to support global strike — are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the effect of two significant organizational changes in three years could be quite a bit greater than the sum of the individual impact.

Heads are going to roll — officers will lose promising careers, regular guys will get the blame. This process has already started, with the squadron commander in charge of Minot’s munitions crews.

If I have one bit of advice to Secretary Gates, it is this: Call an organizational theorist, like Charles Perrow, or a like-minded political scientists, like Scott Sagan, immediately.

Apportioning blame reassures the public and makes you look tough. But, if this accident represents a broader organizational pathology rather than mere negligence, disciplinary actions won’t solve the problem any more than screaming at someone who is sick.


  1. Mark Gubrud

    “new or unfamiliar procedures” result in accidentally removing nuclear weapons from specially safeguarded nuclear storage bunkers and loading them onto wing missile pods as if for a strike, and flying them, all the while consistently disregarding their special markers (physical and electronic) as nuclear?

    Sorry, I don’t find that story compelling, either.

    The one plausible explanation for a real accident that I have seen, from a poster on the Military Times site, is that the missile crew that was supposed to have removed the warheads for the missiles to be decommissioned failed to do that, and everybody else just did their jobs. We can speculate that the person whose job was to sign off and release the weapons for transport was not actually involved in the task of removing the warheads.

    However, other than that case, i.e. an order that these missiles were to be transported that way, except that the warheads were supposed to have been removed first, I find it very implausible that this happened without there having been an order that these nuclear missiles be loaded onto that plane in that way.

  2. Adrasteia (History)

    Why can’t people believe that even nuke people in the Air Force make mistakes? This was simple paperwork error that ended up being a huge incident. The missiles on the pylon should have had training shapes that simulated the weight of the warheads. Most likely the crew sent to pick up the pylon was simply given the number of the wrong pylon. Because everyone thought the missiles had no warheads, no one bothered to check them.
    The cold war focus on nuclear weapons is gone. The AF doesn’t do drills like they did in the SAC days. The rules are still in place but the emphasis on them just isn’t there. Air crews don’t scramble and there are no more no-notice inspections. Complacency caused this. Someone either transposed a number or thought they knew which pylon to move. Since every airman at every level was sure the missiles only held shapes all the rules concerning nuclear warheads were skipped.
    I worked on nukes for the Air Force for 30 years. People need to forget all those cold war ideas about pilots waiting for the claxon. It just isn’t like that anymore.

  3. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    I believe that this was an organizational error (and certainly not this bizarre conspiracy theory some are putting forward!) But this was more than a clerical error. Nuclear weapons are stored differently than conventional weapons and differently even than training versions. Its my understanding that they are kept in special locked “boxes” and even that coils of barbed wire are kept over them. (And if they are not, they certainly should be and that too must investigated.) No, the error must have been something much more insidious: a break down in the taboo of messing around with these weapons. It is, in essences, very similar to the “sloppiness” of the weapons labs with classified nuclear information. The very lack of consequences for small security violations encourages more and more stretching of the rules. One possibility is that over a period of time, handlers started to cut corners and stopped thinking of nuclear weapons as special. That is why I suggested in an earlier post that this, or things very like it, has happened before and perhaps often before. I would not be surprised if the weapons handlers on the other end were the newbies and had not been indoctrinated into the “practical” operating procedures that the “old hands” had evolved.

  4. A reader in DC

    Adrasteia is correct about the complacency. During the SAC days, you never knew when the inspectors would show up for a Nuclear Surety Inspection or an IG visit. Those things kept you on your toes and the paperwork in tiptop order.

  5. peachman (History)

    “simple paperwork error”

    If the DOD’s nuclear materials safeguards procedures consists only of “simple paperwork” (e.g.,no neutron/gamma monitoring)then we best “duck & cover” :)

  6. Yale Simkin (History)
  7. Alf

    Does it not require a Presidential signature to remove a nuclear warhead such as these from storage?

  8. Rob (History)

    I am still somewhat skeptical but very hopeful that this was just “a very serious accident”. The reason for my being skeptical is that I understand the procedures surrounding the movement and transport of these weapons, when we do transport them we do not transport them with a sign saying “ nuclear weapons stay back 27 miles”…. or manifest them as such. And no the procedures are just as tight as they have ever been, especially after 911. It would be easier to swallow this as an accident if it involved just one armed ACM not six. Understand besides very stringent security and paper work requirement in the movement there are structural differences between a ARMED conventional and nuclear ACM. Lets not talk about the little “RED” markings on the nuclear armed version. While lets say that the munitions crew did in fact screw up. Are we saying that the B-52Hs Crew Chief and Command Pilot were also asleep at the wheel? Again I am not much on conspiracies and understand that accidents happen. But if our military has degraded to this point then its time to clean house starting with the Joint Chiefs.

    I will also remind everyone here that war or an airstrike against Iran is not conspiracy theory its a strategically planned fact. The question is will the plan be executed and how?

  9. Yale Simkin (History)

    This goof-up is just the (nuclear) tip of the iceberg.

    At the same time:

    Audit finds U.S. nuclear weapons parts misplaced
    Thu Aug 30, 2007
    By Tom Doggett
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some facilities that handle the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile misplaced classified bomb components under their care, according to an Energy Department audit.
    The department’s Inspector General also found there was confusion at the facilities over who was responsible for keeping track of weapons parts and recommended changes in how to better safeguard the parts.
    John Broehm, a spokesman for the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, said his agency disagreed with the recommendations.
    He said the parts, which he declined to identify, were later found.
    A summary of the IG’s audit — a little-noticed two-page document released in late July — found that two of the three sites reviewed did not track “many” classified weapons parts in their custody.
    The facilities “could not readily account for or locate some of the items included in our inventory sample,” the IG summary said. …

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  10. mark F (History)

    As is often the case on the Internets, people claiming inside knowledge, reach opposite conclusions.

  11. Don Henly

    Protocol is protocol. It was broken. Munition techies don’t make mistakes they break protocol, which is virtually impossible to do accidentally. Protocol is protocol.

  12. Jason (History)

    I believe there is something more at work here, a combination of organizational behavior in the forms of “I don’t want to be responsible for those warheads” and a “just get the job done so I can get promoted and let the next guy clean up” attitude.

    Leaders in the military are known for shifting sensitive responsibilities off of their plates to maintain career progression….only taking on the choice challenges. The “paper work” problems may have stemmed from different departments not wanting to be responsible.

    Or…..maybe something else was at work and a certain high ranking person needed to preserve their career and for some reason ordered these munitions moved. An order such as this is the only way I can see someone (low ranking) throwing regulations to the wind for the sake of getting the job done (for someone high ranking)…..kind of like Watergate (just get me some information on the Dems)……

    Who knows, I certainly don’t but nukes don’t move by themselves, and they don’t move without orders. Regs are broken constantly by commanders needing to get something accomplished to either cover for a mistake, or to make the orders from those higher come to action.

  13. j house (History)

    Why not paint in large block letters on the side of the weapon- ‘NUCLEAR WARHEAD ENCLOSED…PLEASE HANDLE WITH CARE”?
    A cursory look should do it.

  14. Joseph Logan (History)

    Jason’s close enough for common sense, I think. If it were malicious, it’s a strange way to be malicious, and I seriously doubt it is. To what end?

    On the other hand, if you want a good view on how well-intentioned people can work together to make something like this happen, just read Chapter 7 of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report. It’s all there and very well done.

    Also, it would take a lot of doing to convince me that 100% of the rest of US assets are exactly where they are thought to be, or that 100% are even thought to be in a particular place.

    Very insightful piece, Jeffrey. Would that it resulted in something other than blame and business as usual.

  15. The Pundit (History)

    I guess this is just a coincidence?

    Since the story broke 7 days ago, about the missing nuke\clandestine operation from Minot, we have the following for those who are paying attention:

    1. All six people listed below are from Minot Airforce base
    2. All were directly involved as loaders or as pilots
    3. All are now dead
    4. All within the last 7 days in ‘accidents’

    Silly me, seeing more than there is to this story. I guess this is just another coincidence.

    But no doubt now that there will be more coincidences in the near future because as I have stated before, you need about fourteen signatures to get an armed nuke onto a B-52, and they may have told their wives and friends.

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