Minot/Barksdale Nuclear Bent Spear Incident-Part I

An Analysis & Critique

HighLonesomeOver 36 hours on August 29-30 2007, six AGM-129_ACM Air Launched Cruise Missiles each containing one W80_(nuclear_warhead) were removed from safeguarded weapons storage facilities at the Minot AFB in North Dakota, loaded aboard a B-52 bomber and flown 1500 miles to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. While removed from secure storage, these weapons passed through six separate links in the chain of custody without being discovered, without being visually inspected and were left unguarded and unsecured on the runways of both Minot and Barksdale for 15 hours and 12 hours respectively before the Ordnance Unloading Team at Barksdale discovered the error, established a security zone and activated a Nuclear Security Alert to further safeguard the warheads.

Attempting to conceal the incident as part of the DOD’s policy on neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Robert Gates notified President Bush and ordered in internal Air Force Investigation of the incident, the first of it’s kind in the 40+ years of nuclear weapons handling. This lasted 6 days until the story of the incident was broken by the Military Times, quoting unnamed sources and picked up by the MSM. Soon after, the Air Force announced that the Minot Munitions Squadron commander was relieved of command and 25 airmen were disciplined. They also assured the public that the weapons never left the custody of Air force personnel and the public was never in danger. The results of that investigation saw the commanders of the 5th Bomb wing and the 5th Maintenance Group at Minot and the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale relieved of command, four senior NCOs of the 5th Bomb Wing received “administrative action”, all personnel of the 5th Bomb Wing were stripped of their nuclear certifications, 65 airmen lost their Personnel_Reliability_Program certifications and all tactical weapons ferry operations were suspended, citing:

There has been an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards at Minot Air Force Base and at Barksdale Air Force Base.

MinotIncidentAdditionally, the Inspector General offices of all USAF major commands with a nuclear mission were tasked to conduct “Limited Nuclear Surety Inspections” at every nuclear-capable unit under Defense_Threat_Reduction_Agency oversight. This prompted Gates to appoint retired USAF General Larry Welch to lead a special Defense Science Board to study the mishap in the context of the overall review of all nuclear weapons handling policies and procedures. That report was released in February of 2008 and is available for viewing here

Part I of this piece will look at the incident and DSB report from the perspective of a nuclear weapons handler, whether the reasons cited are credible and whether the actions taken to address it will have any effectiveness in improving nuclear weapons safeguards. Part II will look at some of the ancillary stories related to this incident and attempt to gauge their overall credibility and connection.

In 1987, the AGM-129 ACM (Advanced Cruise Missile) was deployed by the USAF as a stealthy weapons platform with both conventional and nuclear payload capabilities to counter improvements in the Soviet Air Defense regime. Although capable of carrying conventional warheads, their primary use was to carry W-80-1 Variable Yield thermonuclear warheads. Each W-80-1 has a programmable nuclear yield of between 5-150 Kilotons of TNT. Used primarily as a nuclear platform aboard B-52 bombers, the AGM-129 was deployed on wing pylons of 6 weapons each and an internal rotary launcher capable of carrying another 8 of the weapons. These weapons were subject to the START II treaty which required a limit of 400 warheads deployed on ACMs. In March, 2007, the USAF announced the retirement of the entire complement of AGM-129s due to high maintenance costs and reliability issues in order to meet START II goals of having fewer than 2,200 total deployed nuclear weapons by 2012. This was despite an ongoing Service Life Extension Program intended to keep them as a viable weapons system until 2030. The decommissioning procedures called for the removal of the W-80-1 warheads from the AGM-129s and replacement with dummy payloads. The dummy payload missiles were then ferried to Barksdale in complements of 12 missiles (2 pylons of 6) per trip for missile decommissioning. The W-80-1 warheads were to be flown to Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, NM aboard aircraft specially designed for payload survivability for further transfer to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX and warhead dismantlement. By the first of August, 2007, more than 200 of these missiles were transferred and decommissioned at Barksdale.

The procedure instituted to accomplish this task at Minot is detailed on page 10 of the DSB’s report referred to above. It details that the Munitions Maintenance Squadron prepares a build-up sheet for each load to be ferried including pylon, missile and/or warhead serial numbers being moved prior to breakout. This sheet is sent to the breakout crew at the weapons storage facility who are tasked with verifying it against the existing inventory of weapons in storage and noting and reporting any discrepancies. Once completed, the breakout crew transfers the payloads to the Convoy Crew tasked with weapons transfer to the flight line. The Convoy Crew is tasked to verify the load and perform visual inspections upon receipt from the Breakout Crew, then transfer the weapons to the flight line, passing control onto the bomber Crew Chief and the loading Crew. Once they have visually verified and signed off on receipt of the weapons, they are loaded aboard the bomber, reverified by visual inspection and custody is turned over to the bomber crew. The bomber crew is tasked to do a visual inspection as part of their pre-flight checklist before the plane leaves the ground. This should require 4 visual inspections in Minot alone with further corresponding inspections taking place at the destination point until the weapons are finally secured in the weapons storage facility at Barksdale. Since the various payloads, nuclear, conventional and dummy, are visually identical at first glance and stored in the same facility, the payloads are supposed to be clearly identified with readily visible means to indicate payload types in addition to the individual visual inspections along the chain of custody. Additionally, all nuclear payloads are equipped with electronic and visual identifiers as well as anti-theft devices designed to trigger alarms if they leave the weapons storage facility without proper authorization and procedures.

On the day in question, the movement plan identified two pylons of nuclear-inert missiles to be transferred on 30 August, 2007 via tactical ferry. This plan was altered by the Minot Munitions Maintenance Squadron to include another pylon with missiles closer to the expiration dates of limited-life components instead of one of the pylons identified in the movement plan. As a result, the new pylon of weapons was not properly prepared for tactical ferry and the warheads contained in the missiles not removed prior to transfer. The Breakout Crew failed to visually verify the presence of nuclear warheads in the weapons being transferred and allowed the Convoy Crew to remove them without the proper security details being present. Subsequently, the Convoy, Loading and Aircrews all failed to properly perform their visual inspections with the consequent result of nuclear warheads being inadvertently loaded aboard the B-52 and transferred to Barksdale where they were unloaded and transferred to the Barksdale Convoy Crew who finally discovered their presence triggering the Nuclear Security Alert at Barksdale.

The Defense Science Board Report’s findings on the incident were listed as:

1. Over time, nuclear weapons movement procedures for bomber weapons have been compromised for expedient work processes. This evolution occurred without adequate review and approval above the Wing level.

2. There was confusion over applicability of nuclear weapons handling procedures for nuclear weapons systems that do not contain nuclear weapons.

3. The practice of storing nuclear munitions in the same facility with nuclear-test, nuclear-training and nuclear-inert devices led to confusion and unnecessary access to nuclear weapons.

4. The various levels of inspection activities failed to detect these changes in process which compromised established procedure. The Nuclear Operational Readiness Inspection process required only limited mission performance, sometimes generating as few as one aircraft being subjected to inspection.

The report further found that, due to the decrease in size of the nuclear force and stockpile of nuclear weapons in the inventory as well as it’s consolidation with chemical and biological weapons, the level of focus on the nuclear mission had been drastically reduced in the Air Force Bomber command, contributing to the conditions that created the Bent Spear incident. The report also found similar trends in the Air Force Missile command to a lesser degree when compared to the corresponding Naval nuclear weapons program.

As a former Naval Nuclear Weapons Handler, I was alarmed by the first reports of this incident and mystified at how it could have occurred. After reading the DSB’s review and subsequent Air Force corrective actions, I was equally alarmed at both the degradation of handling procedures within the Air Force and the fact that the 5th Bomber Wing was still certified as nuclear-capable despite failing the subsequent Nuclear Surety Inspection on at least one occasion. Having experience undergoing one successful nuclear-certification inspection, the Navy’s Nuclear Weapons Acceptance Inspection as well as five annual Nuclear Technical Proficiency Inspections and two Technical Surprise Inspections, I was appalled by the Wing’s certification as well as the subsequent NSI failures by the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, the 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren AFB and the 377th Air Base Wing at Kirtland AFB. The latter is especially disturbing since the 377th is tasked with support of the transfer of the actual nuclear warheads to the Pantex plant for decommissioning. For the record, I have never heard of any nuclear-capable command in the US Navy either failing it’s inspections or being decertified as a result.

I found the stated causes of the confusion that precipitated the incident somewhat disingenuous since my experience was also dealing with both nuclear and non-nuclear payloads in the weapons systems I was responsible for, including handling evolutions. I was further mystified at how nuclear warheads could be “inadvertently” transferred from a secure, alarmed storage facility, fail to set off any anti-theft or anti-transfer alarms and pass through a total of SIX separate transfers of custody involving over 50 total personnel before being discovered. While I found the recommendations of the DSB for a unified Air Force nuclear command structure encouraging, I am skeptical about the results unless the Air Force adopts a program more closely resembling the Naval program. So my closing questions are as follows:

1. Why were established nuclear handling procedures with regard to close personal inspection at Minot not followed by appropriate personnel?

2. Why were no alarms set off by the warhead transfer, despite having each nuclear warhead individually catalogued and alarmed electronically?

3. Why did FIVE separate teams fail to either visually inspect or verify the presence of nuclear payloads despite established procedures requiring such inspections, four of which occurred prior to the flight?

4. What plans and procedures are in place to prevent a reoccurrence and to ensure Air Force units tasked with the nuclear mission pass their inspections the first time, every time?

For better or worse, we have an extensive nuclear arsenal and will continue to have one for the foreseeable future. I have applauded and supported US efforts to safeguard both our own arsenal as well as assisting Russia and the other former Soviet states to safeguard and secure the remnants of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. I supported GHW Bush’s successful plan to transfer and safeguard the former Kazakh component of that arsenal to US custody for dismantling and securing of all it’s nuclear material. I have consistently opposed nuclear proliferation and support IAEA inspection and control of ALL nuclear weapons arsenals, including India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. As the only country to actually use nuclear weapons in combat, despite my agreement that their use ultimately saved more lives than it took, the Mark of Cain is upon us. That Mark can only be assuaged by a commitment to total nuclear disarmament by all nations with the US playing a leading role within the IAEA. I also offer my own personal opinion that the only group of people who have EARNED the RIGHT to authorize the First Use of nuclear weapons are the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
 

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Comments

  1. Good Grief!! As a person stationed on a SAC base during the Cuban Missle Crisis, this comes as a bit of a shock that Air Force procedure has gone this lax. Curtis LeMay must have turned over in his grave.
    Dennis

  2. Procedures gone lax? Or following orders?

  3. Ishmael, great piece!

    @Dennis: One of my favorite boiling frogs. I know you write well, and have tons of experience, so please bring’em on & share them with us.

  4. Hindsight.

    Reno Sparks. August 28, 2007.

    http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=show_topic&forum=132&topic_id=3485522

    http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/week_2007_08_12.php

    U.S. attorneys scandal

    Alberto Gonzales, the Justice Department’s master of disaster, has resigned as U.S. Attorney General. August 26, 2007

    Conyers to Hold FISA Hearing Next Week on September 5, 2007.

    Hearings on Warrantless Wiretapping.

    Lax? Or Reno Sparks a Nuclear bomb on a midwestern city to take the minds of America – God Bless – off of White House crime?

  5. @True Oil

    Reno-Sparks
    BARKS-DALE

  6. Thanks for posting this.

    But this reminds me of another security issue. I asked a tech support person about protecting yourself from hacking, being traced online, etc. And he basically said that anything can be hacked. It’s not a matter of a huge budget or having supercomputers to handle it. It’s a matter of:
    (a) your code writing skill
    (b) your objective
    (c) your creativity in how you do it.

    Wayne Masden mentioned something on RTV about a secret division of the NSA that can override any protection software. Anybody know more about this? Sorry I can’t remember more.

  7. These types of lapse are also the result of size and complexity. Systems break down and are vulnerable.

    We really need to think about complete world nuclear disarmament. The risks associated with loose nukes are too high.

    We’ve already dropped a few in the ocean by accident.

  8. JamesLaffrey says:

    Interesting piece. I’m looking forward to Part 2, especially if the author gets a good answer to his own Question 2: Why didn’t any of the automatic alarms go off?

    Also, I hope Part 2 will answer some more questions I have. Here are two:

    1. Was anyone out-of-the-ordinary present during the procedures at either end of the trip?

    2. The whole thing sounds like a shell game. So, have all components of the weapons systems been verified as intact and in possession of the appropriate facilities?

  9. Thank you all for your kind comments.

    @Dennis. Yeah I found it alarming as well. Here’s a Center For Defense Information listing of the 32 known Nuclear Weapons Accident/Incidents through the 90’s:

    http://www.cdi.org/Issues/NukeAccidents/accidents.htm

    @MrKen: The DSB report doesn’t show any additional personnel present during the M/B incident. In Part 2, I will be examining news reports of unexplained personnel deaths related to this incident and other reports in an attempt to determine their veracity/relationship to M/B.

    @TrueOil: Wait for Part 2

    @T: your questions are off-topic and should probably be addressed in my pieces on warrantless wiretaps. That said, I’ve read open-source storied claiming the NSA has insisted on software backdoors to any private encryption technologies.

    @SanderO: Strangely enough, this incident occurred during the actual Downsizing of the nuclear arsenal to comply with START II treaty requirements. That’s why the AGM-129’s and their warheads were supposed to be decommed.

    @JamesLaffrey: See my comment to Mr. Ken re: additonal personnel. On your 2nd question, in response to the incident, Gates instituted an immediate inventory of all USAF nuclear weapons still in inventory and verified the number and individual serial #s of the warheads involved. This still doesn’t answer the main question of how they could be moved from the storage facility without triggering alarms there or how they could pass through five seperate changes of custody without being discovered. Interestingly enough, I ran across this website in my research indicating the lead role of NORTHCOM in any domestic nuclear accidents/incidents anf their role in a Broken Arrow Exercise in Georgia the week before Katrina hit New Orleans:

    http://nukestrat.com/us/accidents/NC-NARP.htm

    Now, none of the info on Minot/Barksdale makes any reference to NORTHCOM whatsoever. The first internal investigations were all conducted by USAF investigators and the DSB reprt was commissioned by Gates himself. Apparently the NORTHCOM brief had been changed by 2007.

  10. I believe Wayne Madsen reported on this matter a few years ago.

  11. GARY WEBB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    AN HONORABLE MAN IN A TIME OF THIEVES

    5 YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF HIS SUICIDE TODAY DEC 9, 2009

  12. @Censored: I have so much respect for Webb’s work, and for him. I covered a bit of his journey in my ‘Dissecting the MSM’ series…Thanks for the reminder.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  13. Wikipedia says Gary Webb died on Dec.10 with two gun shots to the head. How does someone commit suicide with TWO shots to the head???

  14. contextofnocontext says:

    @sCRIBe

    easy…you just need a little help from some friends. not to get off the topic of the piece, (anticipating part 2) but I always find the suicide(d) stories so, uhm, fascinating. Webb, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Bruce E. Ivins, etc. There’s a film you can watch in parts on Youtube called Anthrax War that has several interesting suicides within the context of the chain-of-custody of the Anthrax attacks from 2001.

  15. “How does someone commit suicide with TWO shots to the head???”
    It is uncommon but not rare; one study found 8% of suicides by gun to be multiple gunshot incidents. See:
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/aarvcjmr2k2qd8qh/

    Also if you read Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb you get a good picture as to why Gary killed himself. You would also see that Gary was effectively marginalized, and if anything his death has only enshrined his revelations and work.

    “I always find the suicide(d) stories so, uhm, fascinating.”
    Assassination and faking a suicide draws red flags; try looking into death by light aircraft accident.

  16. Ishmael,
    Excellent article, very interesting; hadn’t seen the DSB report – thanks. Looking forward to the next part. Ralph Peters has been advocating abolishing the Air Force and dividing it up between the Army and Navy for some time now. After reading this I think he may be onto something!

  17. JamesLaffrey says:

    @Ishmael:
    Admirable work and engagement with commenters. Thank you.

    I haven’t had a look at the link you provided. It’s waiting for me.

    And I’m eagerly waiting for your Part 2.

  18. Not trying hear to be a jerk or anything, but why is it surprising to everyone about this whole incident?
    This is a government that couldn’t protect the Pentagon during 9/11!! Remember that.
    I’m of the opinion that this government needs and desires situations in which they need “bogeymen” in order to what Randall Bourne described as “war is the health of the state”.
    Sibel is out there telling how the government is selling secrets on how to make these things to other countries, and have no control of what those countries do with that information.
    Richard Barlow warned of the situation with AQ Khan, and what happened. Sibel warned about the selling of secrets to Israel and Turkey. What happened. It’s well known that President Bush’s grandfather funded the Nazis before World War II. FDR called Joseph Stalin “Uncle Joe”.

    After the Berlin Wall came down, we should have brought the troops home, and that would have ended this crazy and expensive part of US history. Instead this government created Saddam Hussain, and when he stepped out of line, he was dealt with. This government created Osman Bin Laden, and what happened with him.
    Who’s next? Chavez, Ahmandinjad???? This government goes and seeks out people who don’t want to be Washington’s puppets, and try and smear them, create a situation out of nothing, and keep the American people scared to death of the pending “mushroom cloud”.

    This incident with the nukes is no different. I’m convinced these weapons were going to go to some country or some leader, and then be used as propaganda to start a conflict or even war. This is how this government operates. They need relief dictators warming up in the bullpen when the current pitcher’s arm gets tired, and needs to go.

  19. hatchcar,

    great thoughts but I disagree with what you are convinced of regarding the nukes.

    If they were going to some other country they would have. Instead the nukes sat at Barksdale.

    Something must have fouled up a plan they had for the nukes, and I’m convinced it was far more insidious than transporting them out of the country.

  20. @ True Oil
    Absolutely. I was thinking off the cuff, but there are numerous possibilities that could have played out in this situation. And like you said, they are probably more insidious than what I proposed.
    I don’t even want to think of them.
    Also, don’t you love the fact a man gets a peace prize for advocating more violence and death to try and stop something that is as old as prostitution.
    That prize has been tarnished forever!!

  21. Thanks again for all the great comments.

    @SanderO: I am usually reluctant to quote Madsen as there are many I know who doubt his credibility and point out he now charges for his site. That said, his revelations tracking CIA rendition flights and Israeli involvement in many nefarious activities across the globe have, so far, dovetailed what I’ve learned from alternate sources.

    @Scribe, contextofnocontext, Kingfisher: I agree about the small plane accidents, IE Ivins and Paul Wellstone. But if you look as far back as Danny Casolaro, you find instances of suspicious “suicides” like Casolaro, Webb, Palfrey and Phillip Merril:

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/June06/Merrill_update.html

    Merrill joined former DCI Bill Colby in taking a last boat ride on Chesapeake Bay. Merrill ran the Import/Export Bank during the initial Iraqi occupation and Colby was investigating Bush 41 as part of the Franklin Credit Union/Pedophilia scandal. That story, broken by the Washington Times, promptly disappeared while Bush 41 started saying and doing all kiinds of nice things for Unification Church front groups.

    @Kingfisher: If I’ve impressed you, then I’ve done a good job. Can you see the restoration of the Army Air Corps? Gen. Jimmy Stewart would be rolling on HIS grave.

    @hatchcar and True Oil: I don’t want to give anything away on part 2, but it IS worth noting that Minot/Barksdale took place one week before THIS incident took place:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Orchard

  22. Kingfisher says:

    “Can you see the restoration of the Army Air Corps?”

    @Ishmael,

    Restoring the army air corps wouldn’t be that bad an idea.

    The Air Force is not geared to the small war and insurgency conflicts we are currently engaged in, which needs aircraft that can fly slow and low with weapons that minimize civilian casualties and destruction. The A-10 which has proven invaluable time and time again originally had to be practically forced on the AF; the A-10 is slow and ugly – anathema to the fighter jocks. The A-10’s keep being upgraded and having their service life extended because every new aircraft the AF brings in to replace it in the ground attack role is inferior to the A-10.

    The ground guys want small turboprops for close air support in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the AF isn’t exactly rushing to fill that need, the army would be better off buying them for a new army air corps. Originally the army pushed attack helicopters to compensate for the AF’s lack of enthusiasm for the ground attack role; but they have shown to be too vulnerable to ground fire, and the Apache has been very disappointing.

    We are also at a turning point in the history of airpower; for the first time ever next year the Department of Defense will purchase more unmanned aircraft then it will manned. Who knows what this new era will bring…

  23. From ‘Letadlo’ at Talking Points Memo Cafe, via google search. This always looked like useful information. _Very_ sceptical information. YMMV.

    >>>
    This post is a long one. I make no apologies though because there are some aspects of this case where more info is required and this motivated me to post. All of the technical/procedural statements I make here can be checked and I have no doubt that some readers will do just that.

    For those in a hurry, here is a summary:

    1) Nukes do not get accidentally loaded for transport. The orders required, procedures and security in place make it frankly impossible.
    2) It is against US military regulations to transport nuclear weapons loaded in combat position on an aircraft over US soil and everyone who works in the chain of command with nuclear weapons handling knows this. If being transported by aircraft, they must be crated and carried in the hold of a transport plane which is specially built to carry such weaponry.
    3) The aircrew must be made aware of what they are carrying and would have been.
    4) ACM’s are not decomissioned at Barkesdale. This is done at Kirtland AFB, NM. There is no valid reason for flying nuclear-armed ACM’s for Barkesdale for decom.
    5) The fact that the military even acknowledges this “mistake” is cause for conjecture and concern as to what actually happened.

    Now the details.

    Okay, to begin: there is no way nukes could be accidentally loaded for transport. Nukes on a base are stored separately from other ordnance, not just for security but because if they were stored with some conventional ordnance and that ordnance accidentally detonated (which has unfortunately happened on occasion), then while the nukes wouldn’t “go off” in a nuclear blast there would be the risk of dispersing radioactive materials and the subsequent fallout. (Pun intended. Sorry.)

    …. Plus much more
    >>>

    Search for _very_ informative post by Letadlo – Barksdale Nukes Fiasco –
    http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2007/09/05/staging_nuke_for_iran/

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