Gates Orders Nuclear Inventory

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ordered a complete inventory of the nation's nuclear arsenal and all associated components after the discovery last week that four secret nuclear missile parts had been mistakenly sent to Taiwan, an error that went unnoticed for more than 18 months.

Gates had already ordered a high-level investigation into how the four nose-cone fuse assemblies for U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles were shipped overseas in place of common helicopter batteries -- the military's second major nuclear-related incident in less than a year. Senior Pentagon officials have called the episode "extremely embarrassing," and it has both strained relations with China and called into question the U.S. military's ability to maintain its arsenal of catastrophic weapons.

"This is about the trust and confidence of the American people and our stewardship of the most dangerous weapons in the world," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon's press secretary. "Getting to the bottom of this incident and ensuring our nuclear arsenal and associated components are properly safeguarded must be a top priority of this department. Secretary Gates believes this situation is totally and completely unacceptable."

Gates has ordered the Air Force, the Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to take inventory of and assess control measures for all nuclear weapons and their associated parts within 60 days, "to verify positive control and accountability of all such materials," according to a memo released yesterday. While the United States has tight control procedures for such devices and equipment, those measures did not prevent the nose cones from being shipped overseas without anyone noticing.

The measures also failed last August, when the Air Force unknowingly flew nuclear warheads between North Dakota and Louisiana, losing track of them for 36 hours.

Taiwan received the four ballistic missile fuses from the DLA in August 2006, instead of the helicopter batteries that it was supposed to get as part of billions of dollars in U.S. military sales to the country. Taiwanese officials had been contacting the United States over the past year to determine what to do with the erroneous items, with U.S. officials at one point instructing their disposal, U.S. authorities told The Washington Post this week.

Last week, Taiwanese officials told the United States that they believed they had received "warhead-related" materials, sparking efforts to safeguard and retrieve the items.

Officials in Taiwan confirmed those accounts, with one defense official telling parliament that Washington was passive in responding to reports from Taiwanese military officials, who discovered the mistake in late 2006, according to the Kyodo News Service.

"We informed the U.S. of the erroneous shipment. . . . Afterward, they didn't do much about it," Vice Minister of Defense Lin Chen-yi told parliament. He said U.S. officials, even a year after they were notified, told Taiwan to handle the situation itself.

Early indications are that the nose cones' outer packaging was mislabeled, and an investigation aims to determine how a string of security failures occurred.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, said yesterday that the recent errors show that the military needs to revamp its control procedures.

"Otherwise, we run the risk that the next time our sensitive equipment ends up in the wrong hands, it won't simply be a matter of 'return to sender,' " he said in a statement.

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