The transfer of six nuclear warheads aboard a strategic U.S. bomber Aug. 30 has prompted a Pentagon internal investigation and congressional legislation requiring a review of U.S. nuclear custody policies.
Citing Department of Defense policy, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell declined to reveal whether or not the situation did in fact involve nuclear weapons, stating only that there was an "incident" regarding the routine transfer of munitions. He confirmed, however, that the event was significant enough to warrant the notification of President George W. Bush and secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the latter of whom requested that he be kept apprised of the matter.
The transport of nuclear weapons on combat aircraft does not violate any international treaties to which the United States is party, but safety concerns following a series of accidents during the Cold War involving nuclear weapon-equipped bombers did prompt the government to prohibit such flights in 1968. The United States continues to transfer nuclear weapons aboard military cargo aircraft as well as on ground transportation using public routes.
News reports indicate that a B-52 Stratofortress flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, after having been loaded with the nuclear air-launched cruise missiles. Apparently, military personnel inadvertently attached the nuclear version of the AGM-129A Advanced Cruise Missile to the bomber before it departed on its approximately 2,500-kilometer cross-country journey.
According to the Air Force, airmen discovered the error during internal checks, although not until hours after the warheads had been removed from their storage bunker. Consequently, a munitions squadron …