By Dave Lindorff
“It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”
There is something deeply disturbing about the Air Force’s official report on the Aug-29-30 “bent spear” incident that saw six nuclear warheads get mounted on six Advanced Cruise Missiles and improperly removed from a nuclear weapons storage bunker at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, then get improperly loaded on a B-52, and then get improperly flown to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana—a report that attributed the whole thing to a “mistake.”
According to the Air Force report, some Air Force personnel mounted the warheads on the missiles (which are obsolete and slated for destruction), and another ground crew, allegedly not aware that the missiles were armed with nukes, moved them out and mounted them on a launch pylon on the B-52’s wing for a flight to Barksdale and eventual dismantling. Only on the ground at Barksdale did ground crew personnel spot the nukes according to the report. (Six other missiles with dummy warheads were mounted on a pylon on the other wing of the plane.)
The problem with this explanation for the first reported case of nukes being removed from a weapons bunker without authorization in 50 years of nuclear weapons, is that those warheads, and all nuclear warheads in the US stockpile, are supposedly protected against unauthorized transport or removal from bunkers by electronic antitheft systems—automated alarms similar to those used by department stores to prevent theft, and even anti-motion sensors that go off if a weapon is touched or approached without authorization.
While the Air Force report doesn’t mention any of this, what it means is that if weapons in a storage bunker are protected against unauthorized removal, someone—and actually at least two people, since it’s long been a basic part of nuclear security that every action involving a nuclear weapon has to be done by two people working in tandem—had to deliberately and consciously disable those alarms.
Since the Air Force report does not explain how this hurdle to unauthorized removal of the six nukes could have been surmounted by “mistake,” the report has to be considered a whitewash, at best, or a cover-up.
That leaves us speculating about what actually happened, and about who might have authorized the removal of those nukes from storage, and why the Defense Department would be covering up the true story. We know that the loading of nuclear-armed missiles or bombs onto an American bomber has been barred since 1991, even for practice and training purposes. We know also that the carrying of nuclear weapons by bombers flying over US airspace has been banned for 40 years. So if the evidence suggests strongly that the removal of the nukes from the bunker was done intentionally and with some kind of authorization from higher authorities, then the loading of nukes onto the plane, and the flight of those nukes to Barksdale have to also be assumed to have been authorized.
This possibility has been dismissed out of hand by the Air Force and Defense Department. The very idea is, in fact, not even discussed in the Air force report released in mid-October.
Yet we are left with the unresolved question of how the weapons could have been moved out of the bunker accidentally.
The Air Force has not been forthcoming about the automated alarm protections on American nuclear weapons, refusing to confirm or deny that they even exist. But we can know that they are in place for several reasons. One is that since writing about this incident in ghd current edition of American Conservative Magazine ("The Mystery of Minot," Oct. 24, 2007 ed.) and in several online venues, I have been contacted by several active-duty and retired military people who have assured me that such electronic protections are in place. A second is that an article in the Oct. 31 issue of the New York Times, reporting on the early completion of a project by the National Nuclear Security Administration, to secure Russian nuclear weapons, said that the measures implemented at 25 classified sites on 12 Russian nuclear bases included “measures that have long been part of American efforts” to secure nuclear weapons, and that these included “alarm and motion detection systems,” as well as “modern gates, guard houses and fighting positions, “ and also “detectors for explosives, radiation and metal.”
Ask yourselves, would American nuclear weapons be equipped with lesser security systems than those that the NNSA is providing for Russian weapons?
Of course not!
And yet we’re asked to believe that some low-ranking ground crew personnel at Minot AFB simply walked out of a nuclear weapons bunker with six nuclear armed Advanced Cruise Missiles, not knowing what they were carrying, and labored for eight hours to mount those missiles and their launch pylon on the wing of a B-52 strategic bomber without ever noticing that they were armed with nuclear weapons. We’re asked to believe that none of those electronic alarms and motion sensors built into the system went off during that whole process.
When I mentioned the automated alarm and motion sensors to Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, a public affairs person at the Department of the Air Force, and asked her how the movement of the six nukes could have occurred without those alarms being disabled, she said, “It’s an intriguing question, and it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”
As it should.