Broken Arrows and Iran

Concerning my weekend diary item about the possibility of nuclear warheads from a B-52 that crashed on February 3, 1991,ending up in Iran, John Vickers, a former B-52 flier and CounterPunch reader, offers some pretty persuasive criticisms on at least one part of the story.

My weekend diary item, based on a conversation with someone in the arms business who doesn’t want his name used, was that a B-52G flying over Baghdad on February 3 was carrying three SRAMS, missiles with nuclear warheads.

The plane developed serious problems, including black-out of navigational systems, and as the plane limped down the African coast, fire prompted the crew to dump the SRAMS. They landed in shallow water off the Somali coast, were retrieved and may ultimately have ended up in Iran.

Even at first hearing the story had some obvious problems, most notably the B-52’s flight path, As one comment on my item ran: “In the exceedingly unlikely case of a total electric failure and lack of handheld emergency radios (commonly carried in survival vest of Military aircrew to communicate with SAR if aircraft downed) they would take a compass course towards the Maldives and then follow the island chain down to DG — that’s the off the Indian coast, definitely not Somalia.”

There were other notes about our story on the PPRuNe forum to the effect that “Posted comments confirm that a B-52 and 3 crew were lost near Diego Garcia on that date; so that part jibes with reality. But another commentator reports: ‘the Boeing AGM-69 SRAM was retired from the US inventory in June 1990′.”

Bill Yerkes wrote, commenting that “the SRAM missile that you write about is supposed to carry a W 69 bomb. This is a 200-KT thermo-nuclear gadget and, obviously, as lightweight and small as old Ted Taylor could design – it is therefore, also obviously, not powered by uranium. It is powered by plutonium and Li 6.This fact would seem to undermine your thesis.[The “thesis” was the view of our initial informant that the warhead might have yielded enriched uranium for subsequent use in a “dirty” bomb.] The idea that the USAF would jettison the weapons makes sense – they’d had serious troubles with the solid rocket motor fuel becoming unstable and catching fire. The SRAM was taken out of service about the time of the event you cite.”

Now to John Vickers, former B-52 crewman, now a physical therapist in Miami.

In February, 1991, Vickers was a captain in USAF, working as a radar-navigator in a B-52G , flying missions during first Gulf War out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Vickers confirms that a B52G did crash on flight approach into Diego Garcia on February 3, with three out of the six crew killed because they bailed out below safe ejection minimum altitude. One of those killed was Vickers’ room-mate from B-52G Force Academy. qualification training and classmate (’86) at the Air .

Vickers’ crew was out of Barksdale, Louisiana, and that of the downed B-52 out of Blytheville AFB, Arkansas. He says that at that time B-52s weren’t carrying SRAMs but primarily air-launched cruise missiles, ALCMS. In the war theater in 1991 the B-52s were armed with conventional air-launched cruise missiles, CALCMs, which are non-nuclear.

“When those guys crashed on February 3,” Vickers goes on, “the Air Force had air superiority. The war was going our way. There was no need to need to circle Baghdad with nukes. And if they had used a nuke, the electro-magnetic pulse would have destroyed the electro-magnetic spectrum for miles around, which could have made all US electronic equipment (GPS, radios, radar, etc.,)unusable. Not to mention killing all the Special Forces units that may have been on the ground.

“If they were arming the B-52 with nukes they would have sent a more experienced pilot and crew. On the B-52G that went down the copilot and navigator were not well seasoned, as was the navigator. In fact the inexperience was one of the reasons the B-52 got into such trouble. It started out with fuel problems that developed into electrical problems, and then everything snowballed. The pilot didn’t manage it well and wound up not giving the bail-out command until the aircraft’s altitude was too low for safe ejection for several crew members. They crashed about ten miles short of Diego Garcia.

Vickers also reckons that any suggested course down the Somali coast is not credible.

Yesterday, August 2, I told my original informant about these onslaughts on the plausibility of his story about the nuclear munitions and trajectory of the B-52G, and asked how he could be so confident that three nuclear warheads had been found in shallow water off the coast of Somalia.

On this part of the sequence his responses were detailed and can be summarized as follows. In the relevant time frame of early 1991 a deep sea diving/ treasure salvage operation was being run out of the Seychelles (some 700 miles or so east of the Somali coastline) in part at least as cover for a South African arms smuggling operation into Somalia. The apartheid-era South African military was sending packages of conventional arms destined for groups in Somalia, and dropping them in shallow water. The diver could not find these packages and had to broaden his search, then came across the SRAMs. He relayed their serial numbers via the UK to a retired senior officer in the USAF to find out what they were. The news from the senior officer was that these were nuclear munitions from a B-52.

Subsequently, so this informant reports, the group that recovered the three nuclear warheads found a customer in the form of South Africa’s defense minister, Magnus Malan. Malan was certainly a seasoned operator in smuggling and covert ops, having run multifarious conspiracies for the apartheid regime in its final period. He was deeply involved with supplying Savimbi in Angola and in other covert interventions and terror missions in southern Africa.

Negotiations proceeded, but ­ so our source says ­ when the vendors of the SRAMS went to South Africa to finalize the deal and transfer, Malan met them at Jan Smuts airport and told them he’d just been fired by De Klerk and the deal was off.

As a matter of record, Malan was indeed fired from his post as Defense Chief in 1991, was later arrested, in 1995, with 10 other former senior military officers and charged with murdering 13 black people in 1987 as part of a conspiracy to create war between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Zulu Inkhata Freedom Party. He was acquitted the following year.

The subsequent supposed trail of the three SRAMs gets even fainter, with suggestions that they did ultimately pass into the hands of the South Africans, with their ultimate whereabouts a topic of speculation.

So, we are left with what looks like the dove-tailing of two separate sequences, with those knowledgeable about the discovery of nuclear warheads off the Somali coast in mid-May , 1991, finding a possible retrospective explanation for the arrival of these warheads in these shallow waters in the known loss of a B-52G on February 3, 1991 on its way from the Iraq war theater to Diego Garcia. The notion that any nuclear materials from this saga might have ended up in Iran was purely speculative, dovetailed into much later radiation readings by UN nuclear inspectors. And of course the mention of Iran might have been mischief-making, on the Niger yellowcake model.

However, our source on the Somali sequence does insist that he has heard from two separate informants working in Saudi Arabia during the first Iraq war that at least one B-52 was armed with missiles with nuclear warheads. One, in the Fleet Air Arm reported that a B-52 with nuclear munitions on board had got into trouble. The other, working on a US base, said that when a B-52 carrying nuclear munitions landed, they had to take extra security precautions.

Footnote: the USAF plane that crashed into the swamps near Savannah, Georgia, carrying a nuclear weapon, was a B-47, not B-52.


















Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.