Philip Coyle, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information and a former assistant secretary of defense from the Clinton administration period, has a troubling question about the recent nuclear weapon incident in the US.
He wants to know if the six nuclear-tipped Advanced Cruise Missiles that were improperly removed from a guarded bunker at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and flown in launch position on a wing pod of a B-52H Stratofortress bomber on Aug. 29-30 to Barksdale AFB were programmed with targeting information.
He also wants to know if the Air Force and Pentagon, which last Friday concluded an investigation into that shocking incident (no nuclear weapons have been flown on a bomber over US territory for 40 years on presidential orders, and since 1991 no nuclear weapons are even supposed to be loaded for practice on a parked plane), ever checked the missiles' computer guidance systems.
No mention of target programming on the missiles, which were originally designed to fly low and fast to their targets to evade Soviet radar and interceptors, was made at the Pentagon press conference, at which the whole incident was explained away as a big "mistake." which It was announced that five officers and 65 enlisted people were "fired" from their positions as a result of the incident, but no specific information was given about what they had done, or not done, that led to their firings.
As Coyle observes, it might have been a good idea to check those computers.
Noting that the six missiles with their nuclear warheads had been pre-loaded into launching racks on a wing pylon, and stored that way in the weapons bunker for faster loading, Coyle says, "they may well have had them programmed for certain targets."
Coyle says that it's true that following the end of the Cold War, the military claims it no longer targets ICBMs at targets, but rather aims them at spots in the middle of oceans. This is to prevent an accidental launch, he says, and can be done because the modern intercontinental missiles have computers that can be reprogrammed with real target information very fast.
The older 1980s-era cruise missiles have older, smaller computers on board, though, and Coyle says because they are harder to program, he "wouldn't be surprised" if they were pre-programmed with terrain-mapping information "to get them to their eventual targets."
Certainly it would seem like the investigators who looked into this "mistake" should have checked out those onboard computers to see where these cruise missiles were programmed to deliver their errant 150-kiloton warheads. That information might have gone a long way towards establishing whether the missiles were moved to Barksdale AFB (a staging area for B-52s intended for use in the Middle East theater) by accident, or with some dark plan in mind.
The Air Force, as of this filing, has not provided an answer to this question.
DAVE LINDORFF is an investigative reporter and columnist. His latest book, co-authored by Barbara Olshansky, is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006, and now out in paperback).