The Nuclear Missile Foul-Up

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Regarding the Sept. 23 front-page story "The Saga of a Bent Spear," about problems with the handling of six nuclear weapons last month:

The Air Force has acted swiftly since this incident occurred. From the outset, we admitted that we made a mistake with a munitions transfer, and we took immediate personnel actions. We launched an investigation led by a general to determine how this happened. That investigation should be completed within several days.

And we are not waiting on the investigation's results to ensure that our munitions processes are in order. First, we are conducting weapons inspections at all installations similar to Minot and Barksdale Air Force bases, taking a hard look at our munitions procedures. Second, Air Combat Command conducted a command-wide stand-down to review munitions policies, regulations and procedures. Third, we are in constant dialogue with the secretary of defense's staff on the status of our investigation, which is being assisted by representatives from his inspector general's office. Fourth, I have visited Minot and Barksdale to see firsthand the dedicated professionals responsible for working with our munitions. They are committed to ensuring that our weapons remain secure.

We owe America a comprehensive, detailed investigation. And when it's complete, we will provide America with results that are fully transparent and accurate.


Secretary of the Air Force




The United States has a nuclear arsenal of nearly 10,000 warheads. Russia holds approximately 15,000.

The frightening B-52 incident seriously calls into question the wisdom of keeping thousands of these weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched at a moment's notice.

If six live nuclear missiles could be mistakenly sent across the country, despite elaborate safety protocols, it is not impossible to fathom another nightmare scenario: the accidental or unauthorized launch of submarine or land-based nuclear missiles. Faced with accidental or unauthorized incoming American nuclear missiles, Russia, China or some other nuclear power would have to quickly decide whether to retaliate. What started as a mistake could soon mushroom into a global nuclear exchange.

More than 15 years after the end of the Cold War, the United States should give itself some breathing room by leading a gloabal effort to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.


Policy Fellow

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation


© 2007 The Washington Post Company