By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Four Air Force colonels have been relieved of their commands and more than 65 lower-ranking officers and airmen have been disciplined over a series of errors that led to a B-52 flight in August from North Dakota to Louisiana with six nuclear-armed cruise missiles that no one realized were under the plane's wing.
"This was an unacceptable error that resulted in an unprecedented string of procedural failures," Maj. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, said yesterday in reporting on a six-week Air Force probe. "Our investigation found that there has been an erosion of adherence to weapons handling standards" at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, where the flight began, and at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Newton said.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said yesterday that she is "satisfied" with the report and impressed that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has asked the department's science board to take a wider view.
Newton said the problems began with a breakdown in the formal scheduling process used to prepare the AGM-129 cruise missiles in question for decomissioning. The AGM-129 missiles carry nuclear weapons and have stealth capability. But in March, the Pentagon decided to retire it in favor of an older AGM-86, which can carry nuclear or conventional weapons.
Part of the preparation involved removing the W-80 nuclear warhead and replacing it with a steel dummy on missiles to be flown aboard B-52s to Barksdale for destruction. An electronic scheduling system was employed to keep track of the missiles -- using the identification numbers of racks containing six of them -- so that crews knew which missiles had had their nuclear warheads removed and were ready to be shipped out, several sources said.
On the morning of Aug. 29, the loading crew at Minot used a paper schedule that was out of date when they picked up 12 missiles from a guarded weapons storage hangar, six with dummy warheads and six that they did not realize had nuclear warheads.
Newton told reporters the trailer that would carry the pylons to the B-52 arrived early, and its crew did not inspect the missiles as they should have before loading them on the trailer. The driver called the munitions control center to verify the numbers, but the staff there failed to check them.
At the aircraft, the crew that loaded the pylons, one under each wing, failed again to check the missiles, which have a small glass porthole to make clear whether a dummy or nuclear warhead is installed. The next morning, Aug. 30, the plane's navigator failed to do a complete check of the missiles, as required, looking under only one wing and not the one where the nuclear-armed missiles were.
"We hold ourselves accountable to the American people and want to ensure proper corrective action has been taken," Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, who made an inspection trip out to Minot, said yesterday.
Newton said that the 5th Bomb Wing commander at Minot, Col. Bruce Emig, was removed from command, along with his chief munitions officer and the operations officer of the B-52 unit at Barksdale. The munitions squadron commander at Minot was relieved of command shortly after the incident. The flight in question was the sixth of 12 planned ferrying missions, but the rest have been suspended.
Air Force Major Gen. Polly A. Peyer has been asked to examine potential individual culpability, Newton said. He did not rule out other disciplinary action, including courts-martial.