Jeffrey LewisNothing Like This Can Happen

Er, again. Another nuclear weapons related incident:

The U.S. military has regained control of four non-nuclear nose cone assemblies for a Minuteman missile mistakenly sent to Taiwan in 2006, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne said during a news conference here today.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates learned of the situation on March 21 and immediately ordered that the United States regain “positive control” of the systems, Wynne said. He also notified the president of the situation.

It was the second incident with a strategic weapon in the past year. In August, an Air Force B-52 flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., carrying atomic weapons. The crew did not realize they were carrying nuclear weapons until they landed.

Today, Gates signed a memorandum directing Adm. Kirkland Donald, director of Navy Nuclear Propulsion, to conduct a comprehensive investigation “to determine the facts into how this error occurred and who is accountable throughout the chain of command,” said Christopher R. “Ryan” Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.

There it is again, the rhetoric of personal accountability when what we have is a sick organization. I’ve said it before. I will say it again:

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 scientist, 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.

These guys don’t get it. This is not an isolated incident. The organization has a problem. This is dangerous.

The New America Foundation will pay all of Scott Sagan’s expenses to come to DC if Secretary Gates will send someone — say Mr. Henry — to attend the meeting.


  1. Joseph Logan (History)

    This makes me wonder if I (and perhaps my ilk, but certainly I) have exerted too much energy toward making the case that organizations like this have a problem—a culture that makes these kinds of incidents probable—and too little trying to propose a path toward fixing the problem. Scott Sagan more than any I know of has done a hell of a job in describing schools of thought on how this might work, but fixing this present matter might require something more direct, and from a more authoritative source. Any thoughts on who at the Pentagon could make a case for reform rather than blame?

  2. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    From the Chinese perspective, it raises a lot of questions whether or not this is a way of “accidentally” transferring some very sensitive technologies to Taipei.

    It is virtually impossible for the “accident” to have happened as stated: Helicopter batteries mistaken for this? That is a harder joke to sell than the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy.

    How far along are the Taiwanese on their ballistic missile program?

  3. Adam C (History)

    A solution? Well I(and perhaps my ilk) at the American Enterprise Institute have consulted with The Rand Corporation we have come up with a plan to privatize the nuclear arsenal. As we all know Government is the problem. So join us in this bold new world and support privatizing all WMD so that we may all finally get some sleep.

  4. Eli (History)

    So…any word why it took the Taiwanese a year and a half to figure out that Minuteman III nosecones don’t look very similar to helicopter batteries?

    I saw that the official story was that they just tossed the crate in a warehouse when they got it, but do they not even open the crates until years after they received shipment?

    This is not to imply that Taiwan did anything wrong here. It seems that they could have sat on this hardware with little chance the military would have caught the mistake. There just seems to be a need for more information as to why this wasn’t discovered after so long a time.

  5. Rip (History)

    Me thinks “non-nuclear” is a bit of a spin. I know there has been discussion of conventional ICBMs but I was unaware that we had progressed to non-nuclear Minuteman hardware.

  6. Allen Thomson (History)

    Larger issues aside, anybody care to guess what the objects in question were?

    From what I’ve been able to gather, they were perhaps the SAFF units, those being the Safety, Arming, Fusing and Firing widgets that accept various external inputs and finally send the firing signals to the detonators in the warhead’s primary.

  7. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    It begs the question, do the Taiwanese have access (or potential access) to a warhead that could have used a nosecone with a SAFE unit?

    Could this knowhow be used with a chemical or biological weapons warhead in addition to nuclear? Or a EMP warhead?

    Why is it I doubt that answers are going to be forthcoming?

    China has made clear that if Taiwan acquires nuclear weapons, it means war.

  8. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    According to my colleague, Rob Nelson “What shipped is the electrical proximity fusing mechanism that senses when the RV is at the right altitude from the target and sends an electrical signal to the physics package, beginning the process for detonation. It is NOT the high explosive triggering mechanism that is part of the actual warhead. This is for the Mk-12A which houses the W-62 warhead on the Minuteman missile, so it is 1960s technology. The briefer states that the general design of the fuse is common to many conventional artillery shells, but that this particular fuse would only work on the Mk-12.”

    And in response to a question from me about whether this was a violation of the MTCR, Rob sent me this email comment from another colleague from a different organization: “…the electrical fuses designed for use on intercontinental ballistic missiles that found their way to Taiwan are listed as controlled “Item 2, Category I” item under the Missile Technology Control Regime, meaning that this is an extremely sensitive piece of equipment.”

    What normally happens under the MTCR in this kind of circumstance? What if the two parties had been China and Pakistan instead of the US and Taiwan?

  9. Joseph Logan (History)

    Eli, wish I could remember where I saw it, but one story (Washington Post, methinks) mentioned that it took repeated calls from the Taiwanese to get anyone at AF to pay attention.

    Adam, you’re suggesting privatizing nukes? I’m not an arms specialist but rather an organization studies dude, and from the org perspective, that sounds at least as problematic as the current state. You could—and probably will—argue the data points about nuke mishandling, and I could—and would—rebut with examples of corporate malfeasance and ineptitude that would in debate end up roughly commensurate with your examples of government shortcomings. Let’s bypass that conversation unless we need to revisit it.

    The concern I have with a privatized nuclear arsenal is the nature of the multinational organization, especially as concerns transparency, ease of influence, and existence beyond the borders of single nation-states. I wouldn’t suggest that KBR might use a nuke against a position in Afghanistan, though some would, but I would want to discuss scenarios in which assets are moved among corporate subsidiaries in various countries, and without accountability to authorities in the home country. In the same way there are countries more or less friendly to rough interrogation or less stringent clinical trials, there are plenty of places where an organization could transfer nukes. There are also plenty of organizations capable of keeping two sets of books, and more so when the content of those books is classified. You will probably point out that there would be a government-controlled accountability regime, but wouldn’t that put us back where we are today? I am fairly certain that I wouldn’t sleep any better knowing that IBM runs our nuclear program.

  10. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    I have questions about the missile parts:

    – The United States and Taipei both claim Taiwan have no active nuclear weapons program. Fine.

    Let us take this as a given. But that leaves countries in the neighborhood like Pakistan, DPRK, India etc. that do have a proven nuclear capability.

    For reverse engineering purposes, these countries would greatly benefit from having access to these missile parts which are quite hard to make.

    Having a nose cone assembly and fuse for a Minuteman would help them engineer a good reentry vehicle, and also solve the rather tricky problems of detonating an airburst at precisely the right altitute for a projectile traveling at that speed.

    The question then becomes: what links are there between Taiwan, DPRK, Pakistan, India and is this “accidental” transfer part of a larger puzzle?

    – Let’s look a bit broader: the capability to send a payload via a Ballistic Missile, with a good reentry vehicle and the ability to activate something at a precise altitute can be used for other things:

    For example, a conventionally pumped EMP weapon, a bioweapon, or even something as mundane as a thermobaric weapon.

    Taiwan is known to have an MRBM program.

    I somehow think it rather improbable that the parts sat in sealed boxes for one and a half years.

  11. J House (History)

    Pause for a minute and ask yourself how many parts/items are shipped world-wide by the DoD annually? If they had 99.999% accuracy, it would likely still result in thousands of shipping errors. Second, Although it is problematic and a FUBAR to the AF,it isn’t like the fuses were shipped to Iran or China.
    If there had not been a ‘nuclear angle’ to the story, we most likely wouldn’t have heard about it.

  12. abcd (History)

    “If there had not been a ‘nuclear angle’ to the story, we most likely wouldn’t have heard about it.”

    Well…it’s still very sensitive and classified technology that DoD should be if it is not already doing its best to keep under a close and watchful eye.

  13. Anon

    All of this begs the question of what else is missing from our nuclear inventory, particularly nuclear-related materials that the DoD now considers to be obsolete. The fact that they were overlooked in at least 10 quarterly inventory checks should be setting alarm bells ringing throughout US military. It also suggest that the lax attitude towards nuclear-related material displayed last year at Minot as not yet been corrected.

  14. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    OK, so now we know it is just the fuses and not an entire nose cone assembly. Or do we?

    It is a rather disingenuous fraud to claim that it is basically the same as a proximity fuse for an artillery shell.

    If an artillery shell fails to explode or prematurely detonate because of a proximity fuse failure, it is a small problem. If a nuclear warhead failed, that is a much bigger problem.

    Hence, the specs for this device are totally different, with this device having much tighter specs and reliability , including redundancy features, multiple safety systems to prevent premature detonation, plus being designed to operate at higher speeds than a plain old proximity fuse.

    To claim that it is ‘no big deal’ with nothing more than the Taiwan military’s word that they left it in the crates is a pretty good joke. That is the kind of whitewash that is served up to Chinese diplomats on the presumption that they are too stupid and technically incompetent to figure out the truth.


    You raise a very important point, which is what else has been diverted?

    How many Oliver Norths are there running around buying up “scrap”, “junk”, “de militarized parts” and then turning around and shipping it off to places with a decent technical capability who can use the parts to reverse engineer a lot of hard to build systems.

    Is this what is going on with Taiwan?

    e.g. the Iranians had pretty good luck for a while buying F-14 parts as demilled scrap. Because they are…. Iranians and not Taiwanese, they got caught.

    Is the US looking the other way in the case of similar transfers for Taiwan?

    Is the nuclear weapons program really shut down cold as the US likes to claim?

    Why have the US not found a way to remove the spent nuclear fuel from Taiwan to preclude any possibility of it being reprocessed?

    Is there an attempt to build a “virtual” nuclear weapons capability in Taiwan?

    Answers please.