Air Force Issues New Nuclear Weapons Procedures

Article excerpt

The U.S. Air Force has issued new procedures and requirements for the handling of nuclear weapons in the wake of an incident last August in which six nuclear warheads were unknowingly transferred across the country. The Air Force decision was announced Jan. 17 and was scheduled to be implemented within 45 days of that date.

The new procedures stem from an incident in which a B52 bomber flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana with six nuclear air-launched cruise missiles onboard. (See ACT, October 2007.)

The requirements stipulate that nuclear and non-nuclear munitions and missiles must be stored in separate storage structures and that they all must "be identified using stanchions/cones, ropes, and placards to ensure there is a clear distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear munitions/missiles." The mix-up of nuclear and non-nuclear warheads is one of the many breakdowns in nuclearhandling procedure that preceded the B-52 flight on Aug. 30.

Over a period of four months, Air Force generals have conducted three investigations into the breach of nuclear procedures. Major General Douglas Raaberg, the director of plans and operations at Air Combat Command, conducted the initial Air Force investigation that found that the incident reflects "a breakdown in training, discipline, supervision and leadership."

Thereafter, Lieutenant General Polly Peyer led an investigation to see if the August incident was part of broader, systemic problems in the Air Force. That review concluded that the problems in the Air Force begin with a lack of commitment to the nuclear mission in senior leadership positions and extend to shortcomings in training, inspections, and funding.

Finally, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked retired General Larry Welch to chair a Defense Science Board Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety charged with reviewing the entire Department of Defense nuclear enterprise. The task force's "Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons," released in February, found a "declining focus and an eroding nuclear enterprise environment" not only in the Air Force, but in the department as a whole. …