former Air Force Captain at Minot AFB
There has been a great deal of speculation in recent days about the Air Force incident on August 30 in which six cruise missiles were transported from Minot AFB in North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana with nuclear warheads still attached. There are those who believe that the shipment, revealed to the Military Times by two unnamed Air Force officers, represents part of some nefarious plot by the Bush Administration to stage weapons for a nuclear attack on Iran.
Another article goes so far as to extend the scope of the plot to postulate stock market manipulation by rich administration insiders who are predicting huge near term stock market upheavals in the expected wake of such an attack and are poised to cash in.
In several articles, the authors state that there is no way that the shipment could have been an accident.
However, as much as I can relate to the mind set that the Bush Administration is up to no good, I have to say that it almost certainly had to be an accident, or if not an accident it was not a prelude to nuclear war with Iran or anyone else. The fact is that if a nuclear strike was planned out of Barksdale AFB using the B-52H aircraft stationed there, it could be accomplished without needing to ferry live weapons from North Dakota against long-standing policy on a combat aircraft.
I’m a former Air Force Captain and I was a munitions specialist in the very unit that erroneously shipped the weapons out of Minot AFB from ’87 to ’90. I am no Republican mouthpiece trying to cover for the administration. I’m a social liberal and fiscal conservative (basically the opposite philosophy of the administration), and I think Bush and especially Cheney are war criminals along with being the normal variety of criminals on a grand scale. I believed in our mission during the Cold War to make the cost of a Soviet nuclear strike too high to consider. After I left the service in 1992, I saw the military increasingly used for actions that had less and less to do with the defense of our nation When we invaded Kosovo in 1999, I resigned my commission in the reserves. Now that I see the horrible misuse of military power that this administration has perpetrated I am so glad that I can no longer get called up to serve in a war of aggression, yet so angry that so many people of honor are being misused.
The key to the matter here is that Barksdale AFB and Minot AFB are both hosts to strategic bomb wings flying B-52H aircraft. The B-52H is designed as a primarily nuclear bomber yet still capable of delivering conventional explosives as has been seen in our imperial adventures in recent years. The two former Strategic Air Command bases both support the same mission when it comes to their nuclear capabilities. Although I can neither confirm nor deny the definite presence of nuclear weapons at any given location (I do value what freedom I still retain under this government), doesn’t it stand to reason that if Minot has nukes, as they allegedly do to be able to fly them to Louisiana, then Barksdale is likely to have an inventory of its own?
The fact that warheads were flown between Air Force locations is not unusual. Only the fact that they were flown on a B-52 is. Warheads are routinely transported by air as it’s much more secure than traveling over the roads or rail. They are typically flown on transport aircraft inside of drums that are designed to survive a crash. Obviously, the security and secrecy of these missions is higher than what occurred on the B-52 flight in question and this is what caused the unnamed officers to speak out. Breaches of safety, security, or reliability on nuclear weapons is a big deal to anyone who works with them, and this was a major screw-up.
The six advanced cruise missiles (ACMs) were being sent to Barksdale to get decommissioned (destroyed). The fact is that the 5th Munitions Squadron at Minot AFB (my old unit) in North Dakota should have scheduled the six warheads to get ‘demated’ from the missiles prior to loading them on the jet. They failed to do this, and it was inexcusable. The squadron commander (generally a Lt Col) was fired. There are three levels of nuclear incident reporting that you may have heard of. The most severe is a ‘Broken Arrow’ where a weapon is lost, stolen, or detonated. The next level is ‘Bent Spear’ and covers serious breaches of nuclear surety (safety, security, reliability). The last is ‘Dull Sword’ which covers minor issues or infractions. This incident most likely would have fallen into the ‘Bent Spear’ category. These are very rare. For 10 hours, Minot didn’t know where six of their warheads were. This is shocking to the Air Force, and they’ve been on it like white on rice.
It’s not terribly obvious when looking at a cruise missile whether it carries a warhead or not because these missiles are like small unmanned aircraft and the warhead is enclosed within. However, there are supposed to be red indicators on live missiles that apparently went unnoticed by the transportation and load crews. They have been decertified. There are several steps in the normal processes where this infraction should have been caught, but it wasn’t. This indicates poor training and attention to detail, and this was never tolerated when I worked with these weapons, and has not been tolerated now. There may be some contributing factors pertaining to personnel turnover, short handedness, or fatigue related to the ongoing war effort, but I have no such knowledge. Regardless of any of that the incident was still absolutely inexcusable.
Do I think that the administration is drawing up serious plans to attack Iran? I do. Do I think that neocon whack jobs and particularly Dick Cheney are considering the use of nuclear weapons? I do. But the facts are scarier than the conspiracy theories swirling around this B-52 incident. If a decision is made to launch nuclear strikes from US bases using B-52s, it can be done without any telltale unusual movements of assets. A single B-52H can put over 6 megatons of nuclear power on target anywhere on the planet within 30 hours from the time the order is received.
SCOTT VEST can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org