Jane VaynmanUS Bomber Accidentally Transports Nukes

On August 30, the first time since 1968, a U.S. bomber transported missiles armed with six nuclear warheads. By accident.

The story is front page CNN.com, but here is the more detailed version at Military Times.

The article quotes Hans Kristensen and Phil Coyle on a very important point. This mixup would not be an easy mistake to make, which means security measures were seriously overlooked.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said a host of security checks and warning signs must have been passed over, or completely ignored, for the warheads to have been unknowingly loaded onto the B-52.

ACMs are specifically designed to carry a W80-1 nuclear warhead with a yield of 5 to 150 kilotons and delivered by B-52 strategic bombers.

“It’s not like they had nuclear ACMs and conventional ACMs right next to each other and they just happened to load one with a nuclear warhead,” Kristensen said.

The Defense Department uses a computerized tracking program to keep tabs on each one of its nuclear warheads, he said. For the six warheads to make it onto the B-52, each one would have had to be signed out of its storage bunker and transported to the bomber. Diligent safety protocols would then have had to been ignored to load the warheads onto the plane, Kristensen said.

All ACMs loaded with a nuclear warhead have distinct red signs distinguishing them from ACMs without a nuclear yield, he said. ACMs with nuclear warheads also weigh significantly more than missiles without them.

“I just can’t imagine how all of this happened,” said Philip Coyle, a senior adviser on nuclear weapons at the Center for Defense Information. “The procedures are so rigid; this is the last thing that’s supposed to happen.”

The warheads could not have been detonated, either on purpose or in the event of an accident. Yet the fact that they were missing for 3 and a half hours -the mistake was only noticed when the plane landed – is very distrubing.

Are accidents with nuclear weapons rare? Is 10 rare? 20?

Here are the well known mishaps, involving test launches, mistaken simulations, and even a bear. There are more details and analysis in Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety.

Comments

  1. Bill Burr (History)

    That’s a helpful posting but it’s worth keeping in mind that this was not the first time since the Jan. 1968 Thule accident that B-52s have carried nuclear weapons over U.S. territory. In late October 1969, as part of the “Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test” ordered by Richard Nixon, several nuclear-armed bombers flew over Alaska in a “Giant Lance” airborne alert. For details and documents on the “Readiness Test,” which Jeffrey Kimball (Miami Univ) and I wrote several articles about, see “Nixon’s Nuclear Ploy” posted on the National Security Archive at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB81/press.htm

  2. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    In any organization, you have to wonder if it happens once, perhaps it has happened many more times before. After all, if the culture (i.e. the organizational barriers) against transporting nuclear weapons this way was so great, why did it happend this time? Lets hope that any investigation is independent enough to ask that question and get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, our knowledge of organizations would also say that an Air Force only investigation would cover up rather than probe deeply. Congress, are you listening?

  3. Haninah (History)

    What do you mean when you say “On August 30, the first time since 1968, a U.S. bomber transported missiles armed with six nuclear warheads.” Don’t bombers carry ACMs on strategic patrol? And if they don’t now, didn’t they do so during the late Cold War?

  4. mike (History)

    Jane,

    I wrote on my own blog about this yesterday afternoon noting some of the risks should there be a (unlikely) crash. I mentioned the mod-1 uses IHE but was not certain if this also implies a fire resistant pit?

  5. tucker's bow tie

    ACMs with nuclear warheads also weigh significantly more than missiles without them.

    The flight and ground crews must have been aware of the changed payload. Right? Every aspect of the aircraft’s inflight performance (takeoff and cruise speeds, all sorts of perfomance settings) would have changed with the presence of no less than six nukes. If the flight crew would not have known about the nukes, they would have risked an accident even at takeoff. It would also mean that the flight crew failed to inspect the plane, or worse, that they did not realize that they were looking at nukes. The aircraft would also have had to have significantly higher fuel quantities on board to make the flight. None of this seems to add up.

  6. Stephen Young (History)

    The real question is not about whether it would crash, but what if they had been on a training run to practice firing the damn things?

    Even given the ACM is being retired, it is too conceivable that SOP requires test launches – this isn’t a cruise missile, but still, mother of all that is holy, it is close enough.

    http://www.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/021105-O-9999G-014.jpg

  7. Jon Wolfsthal (History)

    To me, the press has missed the main story here. The concern is not that the weapons were airborne, but that they ever got out of a storage depot and onto a plane in the first place. It begs the question why these system are even co-deployed with delivery systems. We continue to have ICBMs and SLBMs on alert/patrol, and the airborne component is an unnecessary risk. Centralizing all air delivered bombs/ACM away from bomber bases would be an important step and one we shoudl be pusing all states to do.

    To say nothing of the fact that the lapse demonstrates risks that may exist elsewhere. I am confident that US controls are the best in the world, and if this can happen here, what do you think is or could go on in Russia, Pakistan, China?

  8. Mark Gubrud

    Given the many operational obstacles, as noted by posters here, to accidentally pulling nukes off the shelf instead of conventional ACMs and loading them onto the plane, the “mistake” must have been higher up the chain of command.

    The ground crews must have received an order to load the nuclear-armed ACMs onto the plane. Or thought they did.

    The confusion may have been caused by an order for an exercise to prepare for a possible strike that would involve nuclear warheads. The fact that these warheads are variable to low (5 kt) yield is suggestive of the possible intent. The obvious target would be Iran.

    Whether the order was initially issued with the intent that nukes were to be used, the fact that this was an exercise to prepare for a possible nuclear strike could have been mistranslated at some level into an order to load live nukes for the exercise.

    Alternatively, the order may have been to run the exercise using real nukes, just to see if such an order would be carried out; this only became a “mistake” when someone noted that such an exercise was a violation of established rules, and/or decided to leak a warning of what the Bush gang is up to.

  9. Amyfw (History)

    I’m with Jon, in that the nukes got out of the storage depot in the first place, and that the storage depot was missing its nukes for hours, and didn’t notice.

    But sometimes chaos really is chaos, and it isn’t a conspiracy. Keep in mind that the Air Force (including the folks affiliated with nuclear weapons) is deploying hundreds of people to Iraq to fill admin jobs and free up soldiers for the fighting. That means that, at many bases, the people now doing routine jobs are less experienced in those jobs and less familiar with the procedures. So it could have been just a mistake.

    Haninah, no, we did not fly bombers on patrol with nuclear weapons on them, even late in the Cold War. As Jane noted, we have not deployed operational weapons on operational bombers since the late 1960s. Exercises with loaded bombers or tests of the cruise missiles would happen, obviously, with dummy warheads.

  10. Alex W. (History)

    I think the reason the press HAS missed the story is because people DO think that there are bombers with nuclear weapons on them flying around the country all the time. I think most people have the idea that 1950s SAC patrols of the sort featured in Dr. Strangelove are still routine. If I were going to draw a more general point, I think the general public knows very little about the current state of the nuclear arsenal or nuclear policy, and has visions of the early Cold War swimming around in their heads. I might be exaggerating a bit, but I doubt it.

    Most of the (Harvard) students in a course I recently helped teach had never really heard of MIRVs before, had really no idea what a cruise missile was, had really no clue that the designation “nuclear submarine” had nothing to do with whether the submarine had nuclear warheads on it or not, vaguely knew that ICBMs involved missiles that went around the world. It’s not that they are dumb or uninformed — they were for the most part humanities students, but that shouldn’t handicap one on these things — but I think that U.S. nuclear weapons are most often discussed far more in the abstract than they are in the concrete; it is still “the bomb” as far as they are concerned, thinking of gigantic 15 Mt Mark 17’s being ridden down by cowboys.

    It has been a common anti-nuclear-weapons line for many decades to try and make the bomb more “concrete” for people — Howard Morland’s going around with a model Teller-Ulam design, the Physicians for Social Responsibility outlining the gruesome hours and days after a nuclear salvo — though I’m not sure in recent years that it has really “taken” with most people. I’m somewhat on the fence as to whether it is a good approach or not — thinking overly “concretely” can mean missing the big picture, or getting mired in details, or mistaking trivia with expertise — but I think the mainstream press coverage of this, on the whole, reflects a real lack of understanding, by very educated people, as to the basic operations of nuclear weapons in this country. I’m not sure everyone needs to have a terribly deep understanding of it, but I think that their current understanding — popular culture depictions of the early Cold War context — are probably more misleading than they are enlightening.

  11. Andy (History)

    I see Mark has bought into some of the conspiracy theories that this was all part of some plan to nuke Iran. It’s a frankly ludicrous notion to anyone remotely familiar with US operations and planning. Like most conspiracies, it suffers from a complete lack of evidence coupled with ignorance on how the US military actually plans and trains for real-world operations.

    There appears to be, in all this hoopla, the Iranian equivalent of a “Friedman unit” where an attack on Iran is either imminent or only a few months away.

  12. Mark Gubrud

    “conspiracy theories”,
    “frankly ludicrous notion”,
    “ignorance on how the US military actually…”,
    “complete lack of evidence,”
    “hoopla”,
    “Friedman unit”,
    etc.

    So where’s your evidence, Andy?

    Do you deny that the US military is preparing for a possible military strike on Iran? There are enough reports of this that I don’t need to bother citing them, regardless of whether you or I think an actual attack is likely in the immediate future.

    Do you doubt that, if a strike is being prepared, it includes an option for using nuclear weapons against hard, buried targets (e.g. Natanz), if the Decider orders that, and particularly if conventional bombing fails?

    Again there is enough information out there (and official policy statements) supporting the fact that the Bush gang regards the option to use nuclear weapons preemptively against a threat such as the one they say Iran poses as an important policy tool and a valid military option.

    I don’t know if the Barksdale incident is related or not, but I think it is foolish to dismiss that possibility without more information than any of us has available.

    Another interpretation is, of course, a psyop to rattle the Iranians.

    And even if Barksdale has nothing to do with Iran, the big story this September is Iran.

    Everything about the current buildup for war with Iran is eerily reminiscent of the Iraq buildup back in 2002, including the denials and disparagements from politicians, corporate journalists and policy wonks.

  13. Andy (History)

    Mark,

    Where’s my evidence? I’ll give some below, but I feel compelled to point out that common protocol dictates that those who put forth speculative theories provide some evidence of their own. So far the “evidence” presented by you and others is naught but speculation.

    To continue, I do not deny that the US military is preparing for military strikes against Iran. The military would be negligent if it did not do so. Such contingency planning is a critical function our military performs – so critical, in fact, that every military on the planet performs similar planning. Having said that, one should not confuse or conflate military planning with a decision to actually implement a particular plan or course of action, which is an inherently political decision. Updating various war plans, or development of new plans for discrete contingencies, can be an indicator of increased tensions or that a military option is being seriously considered. But absent other information, planning does not indicate intent anymore than loading a gun indicates, by itself, that I’m out to kill someone.

    Now, on to your theory.

    To begin with, in what context have nuclear options against Iran been discussed? The targets in question are underground and some have speculated (wrongly, imo) that penetrating nuclear weapons are required to destroy them. If one were to look at the US nuclear arsenal and pick a weapon to attack such targets, it’s likely that the AGM-129 would be very low if not last on the list. In short, the weapon is ill-suited for the speculated task. The weapon at the top of that list, the RNEP, does not yet exist and likely never will since Congress thinks it’s a bad idea and refuses to fund it.

    Secondly, a major part of your theory involves speculation there was some kind of exercise going on. In all my years of service and experience supporting actual military planning for actual combat operations I’ve never seen an “exercise,” particularly one for a real-world operation, that was limited to a single aircraft flying directly from one CONUS base to another – an aircraft that did nothing more than what thousands of commercial aircraft do everyday. I’ve seen no evidence that this B-52 or any other spent any time practicing anything other than basic airmanship skills.

    Finally, I don’t believe this was PSYOP – if it was, it was about as poorly conceived and implemented an operation as one could ask for. Even so, I would think another audience might be a more likely target for such a campaign.

    Certainly war with Iran is possible and, in fact, we’ve been in a de facto cold-war with the regime since 1979 that flares up time to time. However, until some real evidence can be produced supporting the various announcements of the “impending” attack on Iran, and not merely speculation or a climate that is supposedly “eerily reminiscent” of 2002, I will remain skeptical and keep my eye on more robust and accurate indicators of US intent.

  14. The Pundit (History)

    More of Cheney’s shenanigans?

    In Canada, we require a min. of 10 signatures in various log books to ship any munition by air, and since we are talking about nuclear ordinance here, that would require about 8 more. So what do we now have on our hands?

    Sabre-Ratting? Maybe. It doesn’t hurt, but then it never amounts to much either unless it’s backed up. Four years of huffing and puffing @ Kim Jong Il have only emboldened him to force the US to finally capitulate on most of their original demands. So no.

    Ineptitude? – at least 28 signatures, in a variety of log books, on two different bases spread across the country, all officially sanctioned by their commanding officers. These are air force personnel, at all levels. I don’t think so.

    Perimeter or Operations Test? Awfully expensive way to test operational procedure. The PSYOPS mouthpieces are in damage control mode though, so that argument is untenable.

    Covert Operation? Very possible. A covert operation to strike Iran (think NicaraguaEl Salvador 70’s) without the official sanction or oversight of Gates’ office, perhaps either to shield him, or rogue elements [* this has all the hallmarks of Cheney’s paw prints]. [Remember: TWO bases involved here, so at least one person at the level of Lt. Commander or higher calling the shots. Conceivable? Yes. Practicable? Definitely.

    The most tenable scenario though, is a setup by Cheney to ‘lose’ some nukes for a definite hit, either domestically, or internationally; but in either case, a false-flag operation. Why? Because Cheney needs a poster-boy and a poster-incident to galvanize the populace around his plan to nuke Iran, and a false flag operation on American soil may do the trick. It’s a pretty big gamble to kill that many estimated civilians to galvanize support – however the Democrat Congress under Peolsi might as well be Republican, and she is doing absolutely nada that the citizenry voted them in on.

    A) The nukes were left on the tarmack for up to 12 hours, fully crated and completely un-guarded, i.e. for immediate load and dispersal.

    B) They were fully activated and mounted in flight, no doubt to verify their operational capability.

    BTW, has anyone noticed that the US MIL has pulled all stops to look for Fossett? That makes for a nice humanitarian, black hawk down, hollywood twist, but the reality is that they have never done this in their entire history: pull out the stops for civilian search and rescue operations: not even on 911. No, they are looking for something ‘bigger’.

    Remember that the original story was ‘5’ nukes’; the revised figure is now ‘6’, but I believe we still have only ‘5’ accounted for. It would appear one is missing.”Houston, we have problem…”.

    Ironically the only way back to a sane (i.e. Ron Paul) US foreign policy may rest with Vladimir Putin. The Russian Bear is fully awake as of late and he is understandably, none too pleased.

  15. Mark Gubrud

    The bottom line for me is that there had to be an order to load those nuclear weapons onto that plane. It may have been that the warheads were supposed to have been removed first. Or it may have been something more sinister. I do not understand how anyone can be confident in assumptions of normalcy (normal procedures, no surprises, no consipracies or coverups) after what we have seen in the buildup and conduct of the Iraq invasion.

  16. Alan MacDonald (History)

    Funny that the ACM with W80 is exactly the weapon system that everyone in the know is saying the insane Bush/Cheney cabal is planning to use on Iran.

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