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February 16, 2008

Loose Nukes, Here and There


by Gordon Prather

According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, entitled "Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues,"

"The main security challenges for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal are keeping the integrity of the command structure, ensuring physical security, and preventing illicit proliferation from insiders.

"While U.S. and Pakistani officials express confidence in controls over Pakistan's nuclear weapons, it is uncertain what impact continued instability in the country will have on these safeguards."

U.S. officials confident that Pakistani nukes are safeguarded and secure against outsiders?

Yes, according to a BBC interview of Pakistani "nuclear expert" Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy

"The U.S. has been actively planning contingency measures as Pakistan's nuclear weapons are, and will remain, a major concern."

Hence, Pakistani personnel who guard actual weapons storage facilities have been sent to the U.S. for "training."

As a result, according to another Pakistani "nuclear expert," Brigadier Shaukat Qadir,

"Pakistan's nuclear weapons are only as much at risk as those of the U.S. or India,"

Well, that's a relief.

Or is it?

The Pentagon has just released its Defense Science Board Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety Report on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons.

If the Pakistani "surety" measures taken by "insiders" are no better than those of our Air Combat Command, we're all in a heap of trouble.

According to the DSB Task Force Report, on August 29th, 2007, a pylon – carrying six cruise missiles, each armed with nuclear warhead – was without authorization removed from a nuclear weapons stockpile storage site at Minot AFB, transported without authorization – and mated without authorization – to a B-52 bomber. The nuke laden B-52 then sat, improperly, unguarded overnight, and was then, without authorization, allowed to take off the following morning, make an unauthorized flight to Barksdale AFB, to make an unauthorized landing, and then sit, unguarded, until alert Barkdale personnel discovered the six nukes, just sitting there on their tarmac.

For more than 36 hours no one in the U.S. nuclear weapon command-and-control system knew where those nukes were, or in whose possession.

Not to worry. The Task Force seems to conclude that it was a paperwork problem. An ACC documentation problem.

Some of the cruise missiles in the Minot AFB nuclear weapon storage site contained live nuclear weapons, but others did not. However, as incredible as it seems, neither the external appearance nor the serial numbers of the cruise missiles reflected which was which. And even though the custody of these "nuke-capable" missiles changed at least three times at Minot AFB, there were no paper trail, no check lists and no formal chain-of-custody documentation.

The DSB solution?

"Re-establish formal change of custody requirements for any movement of nuclear-capable cruise missiles outside the weapons storage area, to include serial number verification and custody change documentation, using a formal document signed at each change of custody."

Of course, that wouldn't have prevented the Minot fiasco, because the serial numbers on the missiles that were actually moved matched those on the movement paperwork.

But Dave Lindorff has raised some deeply troubling – to anyone who knows anything about the care and feeding of nuclear weapons – objections to both the DSB and the Air Force unclassified-version reports of the incident.

"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 U.S. 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."

Lindorff notes that the U.S. has just completed helping the Russians install state-of-the-art electronic "alarm and motion-detection systems" as well as "detectors for explosives, radiation and metal" at all Russian nuclear weapons and fissile-material storage sites.

There have been reports that we have similarly helped the Pakistanis.

Another thing. Virtually every live nuclear weapon in our stockpile contains significant quantities of high-explosive. In fact, one of the principal criteria for storage of our nukes is that the device be well electrically grounded at all times to prevent inadvertent detonation of that high-explosive and that the storage igloo be capable of containing that explosion in the event it occurs.

And if those "nuclear-capable" cruise missiles are routinely stored by the ACC at Minot already mounted six-to-a-pylon, that storage igloo for just one pylon better be capable of containing six of those explosions. For multiple pylons stored in the same igloo, don't even think about it.

The DSB Task Force laments a "marked decline in the level and intensity of focus on the nuclear enterprise and the nuclear mission" within the Department of Defense. "The decline is characterized by embedding nuclear mission forces in non-nuclear organizations, markedly reduced levels of leadership whose daily focus is the nuclear enterprise, and a general devaluation of the nuclear mission and those who perform the mission."

In particular, strategic bombers were assigned to the new Air Combat Command – established when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense – which is predominantly a tactical fighter command.

According to the DSB Task Force, B-52 aircrews and weapons-handling crews spend as little as 5% and no more than 20% of their time on the "nuclear mission." Reportedly neither the B-52 involved in the Minot fiasco, nor its crew, were "nuclear-qualified."

As for the Minot AFB nuclear weapons storage site "nuclear-qualified" custodians and transportation crews and/or whoever disconnected all the electrical grounds and disabled all the radiation monitors and alarms, motion detectors and anti-theft devices – some of which one-point detonate the high-explosive to prevent theft and reverse engineering – and proceeded to handle six missiles armed with hundreds of pounds of conventional high-explosives like they were sacks of cement, they're lucky they're still alive.

The grand pooh-bahs of the Air Force apparently satisfied members of the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that the American people had never been in any real danger. Unless, of course, you consider the possibility of being killed by high-explosives a real danger.


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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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