The Shambles of US Nuclear Weapons Security

April 23rd, 2008 - by admin

Victoria Samson / Center for Defense Information – 2008-04-23 22:42:38

“‘Control’ of Nuclear Weapons… or Maybe Not”

WASHINGTON (April 23, 2008) — After last summer’s Bent Spear incident, where a B-52 crew accidentally and unknowingly flew across the United States with nuclear cruise missiles, the US nuclear weapons establishment underwent a very public mea culpa. Complete with chest-pounding sorrow about how the incident should never have happened, the American public was reassured that it was a one-time deal and that the US nuclear arsenal was under control.

But as we found out recently, this is not necessarily the case. Turns out instead of shipping Taiwan four helicopter batteries as we had thought, the United States accidentally sent Taiwan four fuses that were intended for its nuclear weapons. Worse yet, the United States dispatched the fuses back in 2006. And perhaps worst of all, the Pentagon didn’t realize that those fuses were missing until Taiwan spoke up.

The string of errors began in March 2005, when the Air Force sent the fuses (which were surplus) from Warren Air Base, Wyoming, to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, where they were stored by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). In fall 2006, DLA sent them to Taiwan in response to an order Taipei had made for helicopter batteries. There, they sat in storage for a while, until Taiwan realized that what it received was not what it had ordered.

When Taiwanese officials tried to alert the United States to this, there was a misunderstanding: US officials simply thought that the wrong batteries had been sent to Taiwan, and began the process of refunding Taiwan its money for the parts it hadn’t received. It wasn’t until US officials told Taiwan to toss the faulty shipment that Taiwanese officials looked more closely at it, realized that something was really awry, and plainly told the United States as much mid- March. At that point, US officials took the mistake seriously.

These fuses were part of nose cone assemblies for the Mark 12 nuclear warhead. They are part of the detonators, which tell the nuclear bombs when to go off. They are very finely calibrated to a specific type of nuclear warhead. While they are considered classified items, they are based on decades-old technology. So while you wouldn’t want to have these strewn about the world, the proliferation of sensitive technologies isn’t, sad to say, the most distressing part of the story.

What is most disconcerting is that despite multiple audits after they were shipped to Taiwan, no one noticed that the fuses were missing. The Pentagon is still scrambling to figure out where and how the problem occurred (initial examination indicates that perhaps they were improperly barcoded). Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ordered an inventory of the entire US nuclear arsenal in the hopes of preventing future mishaps.

However, this should never have happened in the first place. Coming on the heels of the recent “misplacement” of nuclear cruise missiles, it makes one wonder how endemic this problem truly is.

Have we just uncovered the tip of the iceberg in investigating gaps in our nuclear command and control? How many times can the Pentagon call a problem an isolated incident before an undeniable pattern emerges?

This past winter, while Pakistan was undergoing a lot of domestic turmoil, one of the things that worried the West the most was who would be in charge of that country’s nuclear arsenal. One of the solutions bandied about was that the United States could potentially come in and ensure the necessary command and control.

While Pakistan was not happy about this option and what it implied about its capabilities to keep track of its own nuclear weapons, this most recent incident in Taiwan brings into question whether the United States is in a position to criticize others. And it raises the fear that if the United States has trouble maintaining its nuclear command and control system after six-plus decades of experience, other countries with less practice may fare even worse.

“‘Control’ of Nuclear Weapons…or Maybe Not” was first published by on April 16, 2008.
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