Last month, six W80-1 nuclear-armed AGM-129 advanced cruise missiles were flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana and sat on the tarmac for 10 hours undetected.
Press reports initially cited the Air Force mistake of flying nuclear weapons over the United States in violation of Air Force standing orders and international treaties, while completely missing the more important major issues, such as how six nuclear cruise missiles got loose to begin with.
Opinion columns and editorials appeared in America's newspapers, some blasting the Air Force for flying nukes over the U.S. and some defending the Air Force procedure. None of the news reports focused on the real questions of our nuclear security.
Let me be very clear here: We are not talking about paintball cartridges or pellet gun ammo. We are talking nuclear weapons.
There is a strict chain of custody for all such weapons. Nuclear weapons handling is spelled out in great detail in Air Force regulations, to the credit of that service. Every person who orders the movement of these weapons, handles them, breaks seals or moves any nuclear weapon must sign off for tracking purposes.
Two armed munitions specialists are required to work as a team with all nuclear weapons. All individuals working with nuclear weapons must meet very strict security standards and be tested for loyalty -- this is known as a "Personnel Reliability Program." They work in restricted areas within eyeshot of one another and are reviewed constantly.
All security forces assigned are authorized to use deadly force to protect the weapons from any threat. Nor does anyone quickly move a 1-ton cruise missile -- or forget about six of them, as reported by some news outlets, especially cruise missiles loaded with high explosives.
The United States also does not transport nuclear weapons meant for elimination attached to their launch vehicles under the wings of a combat aircraft. The procedure is to separate the warhead from the missile, encase the warhead and transport it by military cargo aircraft to a repository -- not an operational bomber base that just happens to be the staging area for Middle Eastern operations.
Yes, we still do fly nuclear warheads over the United States today. We also drive them over land as well. That's not the point.
This is about how six nuclear advanced cruise missiles got out of their bunkers and onto a combat aircraft without notice of the wing commander, squadron commander, munitions maintenance squadron (MMS), the B-52H's crew chief and command pilot and onto another Air Force base tarmac without notice of that air base's chain of command -- for 10 hours.
It is time that we got to the bottom of it through a comprehensive investigation.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff, to lead an independent inquiry into the implications of the incident. That is in addition to the existing Air Force investigation headed by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, director of air and space operations at Air Combat Command, which is responsible for all Air Force bombers and fighters.
The questions that must be answered:
1. Why, and for what ostensible purpose, were these nuclear weapons taken to Barksdale?
2. How long was it before the error was discovered?
3. How many mistakes and errors were made, and how many needed to be made, for this to happen?
4. How many and which security protocols were overlooked?
5. How many and which safety procedures were bypassed or ignored?
6. How many other nuclear command and control non-observations of procedure have there been?
7. What is Congress going to do to better oversee U.S. nuclear command and control?
8. How does this incident relate to concern for reliability of control over nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in Russia, Pakistan and elsewhere?
9. Does the Bush administration, as some news reports suggest, have plans to attack Iran with nuclear weapons?
10. If this was an accident, have we degraded our military to a point where we are now making critical mistakes with our nuclear arsenal? If so, how do we correct this?
Yes, heads must roll and careers will end. But let's make sure that this includes the ranks from general officers to noncommissioned ones.
Or is this to be the Air Force version of the Abu Ghraib investigation?
Robert Stormer of Chicago is a retired lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, serving with the Navy's Supervisor of Salvage, and was a specialist in weapons retrieval. He is a marine engineer and marine salvage specialist.
© 2007 Star-Telegram