Air Force Alters Rules for Handling of Nuclear Arms

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

The Air Force has made substantial changes in its handling of nuclear weapons in the wake of a B-52 flight last August during which the pilots and crew were unaware they were carrying six air-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, according to a policy directive approved last week.

A key change is a firm prohibition against storing nuclear armed and nonnuclear armed weapons in the same storage facility, a contributing factor in the Aug. 29 mix-up. A crew at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., using outdated information, picked up six missiles with dummy warheads and six carrying nuclear warheads from the same storage hangar. The missiles eventually were loaded on a B-52 and flown to Louisiana, where the missiles were to be decommissioned.

"Do not co-mingle nuclear and non-nuclear munitions/missiles . . . in the same storage structure, cell or WS3," the new instructions state. (A WS3 is an underground vault.) The instructions were first disclosed by Stephen Aftergood on his Secrecy News Web site.

Although no specific mention is made of the August events, which caused worldwide concern and a broad U.S. review of its procedures for handling nuclear weapons, the document notes that "nuclear weapons require special consideration because of their political and military importance, destructive power, cost and potential consequences of an accident or unauthorized act."

All nonnuclear munitions and missiles are to be identified with placards saying things such as "trainer" or "empty" to "ensure there is a clear distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear munitions/missiles," according to the instructions. Nonoperational missiles and other armaments stored at sites with nuclear warheads must carry a placard clearly stating that. Last August, the missiles were identified only by a number.

The new procedures outline the responsibilities of officers in charge of nuclear weapons, including Air Force wing commanders and subordinates. As a result of the Aug. 29 failures, four Air Force colonels, including the wing commander at Minot, were relieved of their commands and 65 lower-ranking officers and airmen were disciplined.

Wing commanders are now responsible for authorizing any movement of nuclear weapons under their command outside restricted areas and are to appoint a single individual as a munitions accountability system officer and weapons custodian. Each unit must develop a coordinated visual inspection list. Last August, the B-52 crew failed to look at the individual missiles before moving them from their storage area.

When the missiles arrived at the B-52, the crew that loaded them, half under each wing, failed to check the missiles' portholes to determine if a dummy or nuclear warhead was 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 missiles with real warheads were located.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company