By Thomas E. Ricks and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers and Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 18, 2007
The Air Force has decided to relieve at least five of its officers of command and is considering filing criminal charges in connection with the Aug. 29 "Bent Spear" incident in which nuclear-armed cruise missiles were mistakenly flown from North Dakota to Louisiana, two senior Air Force officials said yesterday.
Although senior Defense Department officials have not been fully briefed on the results of an Air Force probe of the incident, the sources said that at least one colonel is expected to lose his position and that several enlisted personnel will also be punished as part disciplinary actions that could be among the toughest meted out by the Air Force in years.
The measures are expected to be formally announced tomorrow along with the detailed findings of an internal, six-week investigation into how a B-52 bomber crew mistakenly flew from one military air base to another with six nuclear warheads strapped to its wings. Air Force veterans have described the Aug. 29 incident as the one of the worst breaches in U.S. nuclear weapons security in decades.
A senior Air Force official familiar with the investigation said officers will be relieved at both installations involved in the incident: Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and Barksdale Air Force Base, La. A colonel commanding one of the Air Force wings is likely to be the highest-ranking officer to be relieved, the official said.
In addition, the official said, letters of reprimand will be issued to several enlisted service members. The personnel actions may be followed by criminal charges against one or more people, but that course of action is still being discussed at the highest levels of the Air Force, he added. The most likely such charge, he said, would be either dereliction of duty or willful disobedience of an order.
The anticipated personnel and disciplinary actions would be the most severe ever brought in the Air Force in connection with the handling of nuclear weapons, one of the officials said. The intention is to send the message that "the Air Force is getting back to the roots of accountability," the other official said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation remains active.
The August event triggered a rare "Bent Spear" nuclear incident alert that was sent to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and President Bush. Although some details are not yet publicly known, officials familiar with the investigation say the problem originated at Minot when a pylon carrying six nuclear-armed cruise missiles was mistaken for one carrying unarmed missiles. Minot had been in the midst of shipping unarmed cruise missiles to Barksdale for decommissioning.
That initial mistake was followed by many other failures, ultimately allowing six nuclear warheads to slip outside the Air Force's normal safeguards for more than 36 hours. The warheads were airborne for more than three hours and sat for long periods on runways at both air bases without a special guard. Air Force officials say there was little risk that the warheads could have been detonated, but the lapses could theoretically have led to warheads being stolen or damaged in a way that could have disseminated toxic nuclear materials.
One official noted yesterday that the service is determined to handle the case better than it did a 1994 incident in which two Air Force F-15C pilots shot down two Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that were in northern Iraq's "no-fly" zone, killing 26. Few disciplinary actions resulted then, an outcome that some generals said should not be repeated.
Gen. John D.W. Corley, who on Oct. 2 became chief of the Air Combat Command, traveled to Washington this week to discuss his planned actions with senior Air Force officials. Gates is scheduled to be briefed on the Air Force moves tomorrow.
Officials cautioned, however, that an announcement could be delayed because of continuing discussions among top officials over whether the disciplinary action should go even higher up the command chain, perhaps to include some generals.
Both the 5th Bomb Wing, which is based at Minot, and the 2nd Bomb Wing, based at Barksdale, are part of the 8th Air Force, which is also based at Barksdale. The 5th Wing has been commanded since June of this year by Col. Bruce Emig, according to an Air Force Web site. The 2nd Wing is led by Col. Robert Wheeler, who took command in July. They are the Air Force's only two B-52 units.
The 8th Air Force, historically the service's main bomber force, is overseen by Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., a veteran B-52 pilot.