Jeffrey LewisWhat Went Wrong At Minot

Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus have the scoop on how those six nuclear warheads went missing. One mistake at the beginning enabled a chain reaction that allowed the warheads to be out of custody for 36 hours:

A munitions custodian officer is supposed to keep track of the nuclear warheads. In the case of cruise missiles, a stamp-size window on the missile’s frame allows workers to peer inside to check whether the warheads within are silver. In many cases, a red ribbon or marker attached to the missile serves as an additional warning. Finally, before the missiles are moved, two-man teams are supposed to look at check sheets, bar codes and serial numbers denoting whether the missiles are armed.

Why the warheads were not noticed in this case is not publicly known. But once the missiles were certified as unarmed, a requirement for unique security precautions when nuclear warheads are moved — such as the presence of specially armed security police, the approval of a senior base commander and a special tracking system — evaporated.

Unfortunately, the Air Force investigation seems to be emphasizing individual mistakes if the airman, rather than the overall posture that puts nuclear weapons on missiles, and stores them in bunkers near bombers.


  1. Joseph Logan (History)

    It’s easier to target the individual as he is the most visible symptom of an invisible organizational disease.

  2. CKR (History)

    No scoop. We still don’t know how all those safeguards failed. The track from the bunker to the plane is still missing, along with why all those ribbons and whatnot were missing, along with why the color difference was not noted.

    And why the double-checks that should have been there all failed.

    There’s much more to the story than Warrick and Pincus have given us.

  3. Keith

    Have these weapons been returned to Minot? If not, where are they now?

  4. Jeff Lindemyer

    I agree with CKR. We’re still just scratching the surface of this, even if individual crewmen are starting to take the fall. The implications of this debacle are also starting to shake out though:

  5. Nuke SNCO

    In an effort to find some bigger plot all are missing the issue. Humans make mistakes and all catastropic errors start with a series of small mistakes.
    I worked in WSA’s for over 20 years. In the old cold war years there was great emphasis on nuclear weapons. We exercised often and we would “generate” all the weapons just as we would in wartime. Offices and Senior NCOs kept watch and their jobs were at stake.
    Times have changed. The cold war is over, nuclear weapons are a career dead-end for officers. Nuclear weapons are not considered a real player in world events and they are seldom moved at all. The career field is shrinking, they have little experience and some Chief’s are better at getting promoted than at knowing their jobs. There is little promotion opportunity for enlisted in the nuclear career field and for officers the way to get promoted is to fly and fight and that means Iraq and Afghanistan.
    All the safeguards in the world are only as good as the people who do the work. If they don’t do what they are supposed to then you have a problem.

  6. Allen Thomson

    Just for orientation purposes, shows a W80 being installed in an AGM-129, the cruise missile involved in the recent embarrassment. gives a better impression of the size of the warhead.

  7. Nell (History)

    What occurs to me is that it could just as easily happen the other way around, if the storage is as sloppy as it sounds (armed and unarmed missiles stored together, nothing but the little window to show which is which): bombers preparing to take off for a flight where there is some non-zero chance of dropping the nuclear-armed missiles might get the duds loaded on instead.

  8. Robin Storm (History)

    What a bunch of crock. I am sorry I am not buying Warricks or Pincus’s line. First these two are way to close to the DC red neck club. Secondly, I am not buying that two MMS techies walked into a SECURED BUNKER with armed nukes and did not know what they were doing. WE do not mix conventional and nuclear weapons. To top this is the Air Force saying that the B52’s Crew Chief was asleep and the Command Pilot was a dope?

    Whene has the Air Force transported nukes seheduled for limination in a COMBAT AIRCRAFT?

    This is bull and if Congress does not get tot he bottem of really what happened here then all of them need to go back home and do something more constructive…..

  9. User_Hostile (History)

    Wow, Nuke SNCO. 10 years ago, I spoke to a couple people who handled these babies on a regular basis. It was clear that the job entailed focus, focus, focus. “Do it right and by the book.” “Don’t feel up today? Let us know, we’ll temp. assign you to something else—say admin duty—no retribution, because we want focus!” And it was a ticket to a higher promotion because these were the crown jewels of the USAF so-to-speak.

    But, this is now a dead-end career move? What if the weapons had been lost for two weeks? What kind of panic would have ensued then? When I heard about Minot, I was just stunned into silence, because it never occurred to me this could happen. We just wouldn’t ever allow for that; these weapons are the stuff of Dante‚Äôs Inferno.

    Hopefully, the USAF will take the necessary steps to clean house from top to bottom.

    But who am I kidding? Based on there management response (blaming the insubordinates), instead of looking at the reformation of the system, it shows me that the USAF, as an organization, is incapable of honestly dealing with the problem they allowed to happen on their watch. Is there anyone out there in the USAF nuclear community that can refute me on this assertion? Please tell me I’m wrong.

  10. Muskrat (History)

    That reference to “check sheets, bar codes and serial numbers” has me wondering. What if part of the problem was that the check sheets were wrong? That is, what if the missiles in question were listed on at least one form as being unarmed when in fact they were armed? That seems improbable, but so does the incident in question. But if even one inventory listing were inaccurate, that would call into question the integrity of the whole iventory system – if one nuke (or six) was where it wasn’t supposed to be, by definition they it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. If I were in charge of the Air Force and there was even a hint that the bar codes or serial numbers were incorrect, I’d stand down every airman and airplane west of Suez until each and every warhead was visually accounted for and the inventory was triple-checked.

  11. Nuke SNCO (History)

    User, ten years is a long time. Most nuke techs will still tell you they focus, focus, focus, but I can tell you that the emphasis of the cold war years is not there. The career field is shrinking. Most officers have no nuclear experience and rely on their SNCOs. But nowadays getting promoted is more about hosting BBQs and Dining Outs than knowing your job.
    I believe there will be no house cleaning because the entire culture of the Air Force has changed. One reason it has changed is the war. Dropping conventional munitions is where the focus is, not nuclear weapons. I can’t tell you that you are wrong.
    Muskrat, the AF conducted a 100% inventory of its assets. You would have to know the details of how a plyon of ACM with nuclear weapons is handled in order to understand how the paperwork got screwed up. All it would take is one guy who called Munitions Control and told them that the warheads had been removed, when in fact they hadn’t. Or one guy in Munitions Control who mis-marked paperwork showing that the warheads had been removed. The information would have been forwarded to the accounting section and they would have filed paperwork showing those six warheads were disassociated with the missile. All this without anyone laying eyes on the missiles or the warheads.
    Once the pylon was shown as not haveing warheads in the missiles, everyone would have handled them differently. If the techs thought there were warheads in the missiles they would have looked and looked again and then looked one more time to ensure the warheads were there. But once everyone believed there were no warheads, no one looked. No one checked. They should have. But they didn’t because they THOUGHT THEY KNEW the warheads had been removed.
    It’s simple really. No conspiracy and six members of the wing have not died in accidents. All it took was that one guy who said that the warheads had been removed and then no one else checked. Sad but true.