Errors Behind Warheads' Flight Unfold

An early example of a W80 warhead is shown being loaded into a cruise missile. Six W80s were inadvertently flown over the country on Aug. 30.
An early example of a W80 warhead is shown being loaded into a cruise missile. Six W80s were inadvertently flown over the country on Aug. 30. (Nuclear Weapon Archive)
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

An Air Force decision to store nuclear-armed cruise missiles in the same North Dakota bunker as missiles containing dummy warheads played a key role in the unrecognized transport of six nuclear devices from North Dakota to Louisiana last month, according to the head of a congressional oversight committee.

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic weapons, said the decision "created a mistake waiting to happen."

Tauscher said she has been briefed on the interim conclusions of two Air Force investigations into the troubled Aug. 30 flight of a B-52 bomber over the country with six nuclear-armed, air-launched AGM-129 cruise missiles under its wing. "We still don't know exactly what happened," she added.

It was the first known flight by a nuclear-armed bomber over U.S. airspace without special authorization in nearly 40 years. As previously reported in The Washington Post, the six nuclear warheads, each with the explosive power of more than 10 Hiroshima atomic bombs, were unnoticed -- and without safeguards -- for 36 hours.

Tauscher said her subcommittee will hold hearings in the next two weeks to examine the results of two Air Force investigations now underway. "We are going to be looking into inventory controls of the weapons," she said. She referred to the elaborate nuclear safeguards, requiring multiple orders and checklists supervised by trained personnel, that have governed any nuclear weapon's movements.

Summing up the briefings to date, Tauscher described as the "antecedent problem" the dismantling of some AGM-129s whose nuclear warheads were replaced with metal dummies of the same size and weight.

"You can't leave them in the same facility [as missiles with nuclear warheads] and expect people to tell the difference, . . . not from five feet away," she said.

One focus of her inquiry will be when and why the Air Force dropped a policy of keeping nuclear weapons separate from nonnuclear ones. Another will be how related security protections "fell apart at two different bases," Tauscher added. "We are going to check the checkers," she said.

She said the committee also plans to look at the process of decommissioning nuclear weapons. In the past, retired nuclear weapons were sent to the Pantex facility in Texas, where the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) oversees the assembly and the disassembly of warheads.

In this case, the W80 warheads being removed from AGM-129s were stored by the Air Force before they were turned over to the NNSA.

"I want to see NNSA involved in this process," Tauscher said. In addition, she plans to look at why the Air Force turned the delivery of the missiles into a training flight.

The B-52 crew that flew from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to pick up the missiles did not include personnel trained in the handling of nuclear weapons. Tauscher confirmed that one of the crew members performed an inadequate check of the missiles after they were loaded onto the plane, looking only at those without the warheads and skipping the nuclear-armed missiles on the other side.

The most important person in the flight crew, she said, was the one assigned to look through a five-eighths-inch hole in each missile to determine whether the warhead inside was a dummy or a nuclear one.

Referring to the series of errors, Tauscher said: "We are lucky it didn't happen before."

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