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Air Force ICBM fuse mix-up prompts investigation, nuke inventory

Fingers of blame are waving, but none have been pointed following the discovery that the Air Force shipped four electrical fuses — instead of helicopter batteries — designed to detonate nuclear warheads to the government of Taiwan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a complete inventory of the country’s nuclear weapons and related gear. He has also ordered an inquiry to determine who is at fault for a mistake that only came to DOD’s attention when the Taiwanese government complained about not getting their batteries.

“It’s embarrassing enough, especially since they had this big review of all the command and control processes this summer,” said Victoria Samson, research analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information. “It’s worse that it only came out after the Taiwanese told them about it.”

According to the results of a preliminary investigation by Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, the fuses, installed in the nose cones of Minuteman III missiles, were sent in March 2005 from the overstocked F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to a Defense Logistics Agency storage area at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where they were mistakenly stored in an unclassified area.

In August 2006, the fuses were taken out of storage and shipped to Taiwan, apparently listed as helicopter batteries. Taiwanese officials immediately noted the mistake.

It was not until March that the Air Force realized the magnitude of the error and quickly recovered the fuses, according to Wynne’s investigation.

The mistake prompted an angry rebuke from China and an admission from Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry that the goof was disconcerting.

This mistake follows an incident in August 2007 in which a B-52 Stratofortress was mistakenly loaded with six nuclear-equipped cruise missiles before a flight from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The pilot and crew were unaware they were carrying nuclear weapons on board.

Although the fuses were shipped to Taiwan long before the incident with the B-52, an investigation, equipment inventory and process analysis should have shown that the fuses were missing, even if the Air Force did not immediately know where they had been sent, Samson said.

The problem is not so much that classified technology was sent to a foreign government, Samson said. “This is 1960s technology modified to a certain warhead; and luckily, it was a friendly country,” she said.

“The lack of control is the part that’s really concerning. There are procedures in place, but in some places they’re not being followed.”

About the Author

Kevin Fogarty is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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