Analysis: How The US Accidentally Flew Live Nukes Cross-Country
In this analysis, two Washington Post writers take a deep look at how the USAF accidentally flew live nukes cross-country in August. They painstakingly point out how the "domino effect" of multiple errors created what was, in effect, an unknown nuclear crisis in our skies.
Just after 9 a.m. on Aug. 29, a group of U.S. airmen entered a sod-covered bunker on North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base with orders to collect a set of unarmed cruise missiles bound for a weapons graveyard. They quickly pulled out a dozen cylinders, all of which appeared identical from a cursory glance, and hauled them along Bomber Boulevard to a waiting B-52 bomber.
The airmen attached the gray missiles to the plane's wings, six on each side. After eyeballing the missiles on the right side, a flight officer signed a manifest that listed a dozen unarmed AGM-129 missiles. The officer did not notice that the six on the left contained nuclear warheads, each with the destructive power of up to 10 Hiroshima bombs.
That detail would escape notice for an astounding 36 hours, during which the missiles were flown across the country to a Louisiana air base that had no idea nuclear warheads were coming. It was the first known flight by a nuclear-armed bomber over U.S. airspace, without special high-level authorization, in nearly 40 years.
The episode, serious enough to trigger a rare "Bent Spear" nuclear incident report that raced through the chain of command to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and President Bush, provoked new questions inside and outside the Pentagon about the adequacy of U.S. nuclear weapons safeguards while the military's attention and resources are devoted to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Three weeks after word of the incident leaked to the public, new details obtained by The Washington Post point to security failures at multiple levels in North Dakota and Louisiana, according to interviews with current and former U.S. officials briefed on the initial results of an Air Force investigation of the incident.