Accountability

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Air Force failure to maintain nuclear weapons accountability

Air Force accidentally flies nuclear weapons over U.S. airspace without required special authorization

Introduction

The Air Force failed to maintain accountability over nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons components in two incidents in 2006 and 2007. In August 2007, six nuclear weapons were mistakenly flown from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Air Force personnel at Minot and the flight crew believed these were unarmed cruise missiles, but in fact each was a nuclear weapon with a yield of up to 10 of the bombs used on Hiroshima. According to The Washington Post, “That detail … escape(d) notice for an astounding 36 hours, during which the missiles were flown across the country to a Louisiana air base that had no idea nuclear warheads were coming. It was the first known flight by a nuclear-armed bomber over U.S. airspace, without special high-level authorization, in nearly 40 years.” Another incident occurred in late 2006, but the Department of Defense did not discover it until March 2008. Instead of sending helicopter batteries, four nuclear weapons parts (not the nuclear warheads themselves) were shipped to and stored in Taiwan. These two revelations prompted several reviews of nuclear weapons accountability procedures and policies as well as of the Air Force’s organization. “The ensuing investigations revealed a serious erosion of focus, expertise, mission readiness, resources, and discipline in the nuclear weapons enterprise within the Air Force,” stated a September 2008 Task Force on Defense Department Nuclear Weapons Management. “The Task Force found that there has been an unambiguous, dramatic, and unacceptable decline in the Air Force’s commitment to perform the nuclear mission and, until very recently, little has been done to reverse it.” In late October 2008, the Air Force revealed yet another incident involving a fire in a nuclear missile silo during the spring, though officials said there was no threat of nuclear detonation or radioactive release.

Follow-up:
Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael W. Wynne were forced to step down in June over the mishandling of nuclear weapons and equipment. The DOD press office did not respond to a request for comment, but in a September 2008 speech Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “the Department of Defense and the Air Force have taken firm steps to return excellence and accountability to our nuclear stewardship.” In late October 2008, the Air Force announced the reorganization and creation of the Air Force Global Strike Command in response to the Task Force report. The new command is intended to give greater focus to the Air Force’s nuclear weapons mission.

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