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Two words you don’t ever want to see…

… in the same headline: “nuclear” and “mistakenly”. If you see those two, chances are it’s big heap trouble:

The plane was carrying Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot Air Force Base, N.D, to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a Defense Department policy not to confirm information on nuclear weapons.

The missiles, which are being decommissioned, were mounted onto pylons on the bomber’s wings and it is unclear why the warheads had not been removed beforehand.

While I have great respect for the men and women who serve, it should always be remembered that the military is still a government operation, with all the baggage that entails. Hopefully something like this won’t happen again!

UPDATE: Ahab has more.

UPDATE: See Magus’ comments below.  It’s pretty good information on what’s involved with flying around nuclear weapons.

14 Responses to “Two words you don’t ever want to see…”

  1. Ahab says:

    Dude it’s okay to make fun of the Air Force.

    We all do/did.

  2. Linoge says:

    Yeah, but clowns running around with nukes? Who wants that pie in the face?

    ;)

  3. Magus says:

    I was stationed at Minot from 92 to 96, worked Bomber Phase and the flight line in the 23 BS.

    I’ll guarantee you, the USAF treats anything dealing with Nukes very seriously.

    If that jet took off with live nukes, I’ll also guarantee you that’s how the base was told to launch it. Someone much higher up the food chain made that call.

    Nukes DO NOT come out of the WSA {weapon storage area} on a whim. There is a great deal of coordination between base agencies and also verification with higher command that must take place.

    They fired the munitions squadron commander who is probably going to be made the scapegoat–not that he might not be at fault, but with the checks and balances that go on he’s not the final word on loading an aircraft with live nukes.

    The load crews involved being decerted in standard procedure, but they were just doing what they were told–the load crew members are low on the food chain and were only loading what they were told to load.

    The story makes no mention of any other base personnel that would be involved such as members of MOC, the SPs, aircraft crew chief, Base OPs, the air crew.

    As with most stories involving the military, there is much not being told and most of what is being told doesn’t ring completely true.

  4. Sebastian says:

    This looks like a case of ordnance that wasn’t supposed to be live nukes, but it turns out someone didn’t remove the warheads. So they may have been unaware that they were loading nuclear weapons at all. I wonder who “certified” that they had the warheads removed, or who is responsible for doing that kind of thing?

  5. Michael says:

    Sadly,its not the first time. Back in the 50’s a B-47 dropped a 15kilo ton off the of the shore of Tybee Island, which is located near Savannah Georgia. It is still down there. Talk about a big oops.

  6. Magus says:

    I can just speak to the Air Force, not sure of the procedures in the other branches, but they should be similar since it’s DOD and Department of Energy regulations.

    Let me caveat the below by saying I’m NOT a munitions specialist.

    When I was at Minot the WSA was part of the 5th Maintenance Squadron.

    To let you know I am somewhat familiar with the procedures, I was certified PRP {Personal Reliability Program} which means I was authorized to be around nukes (didn’t work on them, worked on nuclear loaded jets) and I have been in the Minot WSA many times due to “additional duty” jobs.

    I held a “Staff Position” with the 5th MS for about two years. During that time I was:

    …the 5th Maintenance Squadron Hazardous Waste Program Manager (that was working outside my career field) and two of the sites under my supervision were in the WSA–inspected the sites monthly.

    …also the 5th MS Vehicle NCO, which means I kept track of all vehicles in the squadron which included all the nuclear certified vehicles within the WSA.

    …also the squadron Land Mobile Radio manager, I kept track of all the squadron vehicle and hand-held communication radios and pagers, including the ones within the WSA along with the radio in the WSA Maintenance Operations Center [MOC].

    (Aren’t additional duties just great).

    AND I was also a Security Police augmentee (another additional duty) when we had exercises–since I was an NCO I was part of the “Victor Teams”–basically we rode security when nukes were moved outside the WSA and loaded onto jets during exercises.

    (Yes, I was a very busy individual, I didn’t mention some of the smaller jobs I was also doing…)

    Anywhoo, back to the gist…

    In the AF, nobody goes near a nuke alone. The AF uses what’s called a “No Lone Zone” around all nukes.

    Those warheads are seriously tracked and kept secure. Always. Within the WSA itself, any movement of the warheads (from one building to another for scheduled inspections for example) must not only be authorized, it’s also tracked by the WSA MOC. The locations are tracked at all times.

    Even if someone certified the missiles as having the warheads removed (and you have no idea how many forms and write ups they had to sign off) the location of the warheads is inventoried constantly.

    And to mention the forms, every little thing done to the missile has a write up in its maintenance forms, most of which require two people to clear. Open a panel, make a write up. Disconnect an electrical connector, make a write up. Remove a component, make a write up. Remove a single screw, make a write up. Several of those write ups also require third person certification–to verify what is called an “In Progress Inspection” [IPI] for example.

    Again, nobody goes near a nuke alone, everything done to the missile is documented [in minute detail], almost every maintenance action requires at least two people to verify it’s done correctly, any movement of the warhead requires coordination between a couple of agencies, and the locations of the warheads is constantly updated and tracked.

    If, and I can’t imagine it happening, those missiles were being treated as if they didn’t have warheads then there was some SERIOUS violations of procedure.

    I can’t imagine that many people made that many and as HUGE mistakes.

    If you haven’t seen it first hand you just don’t know how many exacting procedures are in place when it comes to every maintenance action in Air Force aviation–and that goes tripple for nukes.

    There might have been some miscommunication of what exact configuration the missiles were to be shipped–but that’s a stretch too.

    I’ll still maintain that the configuration those missiles were transported is the way the maintenance troops were told to ship them.

    It’s “who” told them to do it that is the question. And that person had to be high on the food chain–a squadron commander just isn’t far enough up the chain to make that kind of call.

  7. Sebastian says:

    That’s great information… thanks.

  8. Rustmeister says:

    I used to play in that arena on the Army side with the Nike program.

    However it happened, be sure that the Joint Chiefs are having mountain oysters tonight, courtesy of the base commander.

  9. Magus says:

    This is one of those issues where you know exactly who, what, where, because you’ve been there and been involved with the exact place and issue–it’s an issue you can take personally even though you weren’t even remotely involved in the incident.

    A follow up news story that somewhat addresses what I’ve mentioned already, http://tinyurl.com/34kovs.

    Some very good observations there on how serious the security is around nukes–and how serious a breach of procedures this incident is.

    Most of the I brought up are also alluded to by the the “expert” cited in the article:

    [excerpts from the article]
    “It seems so fantastic that so many points, checks can dysfunction,” he said Hans Kristensen, an expert on US nuclear forces.

    “We have so many points and checks specifically so we don’t have these kinds of incidents,” he said.

    The nuclear weapons expert said the air force keeps a computerized command and control system that traces any movement of a nuclear weapon so that they have a complete picture of where they are at any given time.

    He said there would be checks and detailed procedures at various points from the time they are moved out of bunkers until they are loaded onto planes, and flown away.

    “That’s perhaps what is most worrisome about this particular incident — that apparently an individual who had command authority about moving these weapons around decided to do so,” he said.

    “It’s a command and control issue and it’s one that calls into question the system, because if one individual can do that who knows what can happen,” he said.
    [end excerpts]

    I still don’t think the Munitions Squadron Commander, on his own, has the command authority to order a bomber loaded with nukes. I don’t want to seem to be holding him blameless, because as the HMFIC of the WSA he’s ultimately responsible at the base level and it is his ass on the line.

  10. Sebastian says:

    That TinyURL is dead.

    It does seem like something went horribly wrong here. Hopefully the public understands that nuclear warheads have cryptographic arming circuits, so even if nukes were loaded on a plane, it takes the nuclear codes from the president to be able to arm the warheads.

    Without the firing circuits, it’s basically just a dirty bomb.

  11. straightarrow says:

    The munitions squadron commander is most likely a Lt. Colonel, which is like being an assistant shift manager at McDonald’s. He could not have done this without higher authority directing him to do so.

    That this could be something as simple as a clerical error in the issuance of orders is possible. However, if the commander did not confirm, he bears some blame, but someone much higher had to be in the loop for this to happen, even mistakenly.

  12. Magus says:

    Linky dead?!? ACK!

    Couldn’t find the original URL, here’s a yahoo news link to the same story:

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070906/pl_afp/usmilitarynuclear_070906043346

    And a tiny in case the long one isn’t clickable, hopefully this one doesn’t go bad:

    http://tinyurl.com/yukrbl

  13. Magus says:

    Ah ha! Silly me…

    http://tinyurl.com/34kovs

    does work. In my original comment I included it in a sentence so there is a period being included at the end.

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