Two facts of life — aside from being a long-canceled 1980’s television show and the reason for much adolescent giggling — are 1) accidents happen, and 2) people lose things. As for the former, experience has provided us with this rule of thumb: Accidents occur when you are most pressed for time. The cause of an accident, while not always evident, is often attributed to the confluence of seemingly unrelated, freakish events — or at least one hopes so, especially if you were the only one involved. Losing something, on the other hand, means that, regardless of who owns the item, if you were the one who had it last, it’s your fault.
The collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago led many pundits to worry that a concomitant collapse of internal controls over that country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons could lead to a nuclear accident or, worse, that the weapons themselves could be lost, eventually being sold in nuclear flea markets. This was not idle speculation, especially considering the checkered safety history of that noted nuclear family, the United States military.
According to Otfried Nassauer, an expert on nuclear armament and the director of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security, “The American Defense Department has confirmed the loss of 11 atomic bombs… [and] it is believed that up to 50 nuclear weapons worldwide were lost during the Cold War.”
Beware When Traveling Abroad
On January 17, 1966, during an aerial tanking maneuver, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber with four hydrogen bombs in its hold collided at 29,000 feet with a KC-135 refueling aircraft; both planes exploded in a giant fireball over the village of Palomares, off the southeastern coast of Spain. One of the hydrogen bombs landed unexploded in a tomato field near the village. The non-nuclear fuse in two other bombs detonated, causing fragments and plutonium dust to rain down on the impact site. The fourth bomb fell into the water somewhere off the coast, burying itself several feet deep in silt.
The U.S. government had the fields dug up, and 1400 tons of contaminated soil were removed and shipped to the United States for disposal. Meanwhile, dozens of American warships patrolled the coastline to seal off the area where a fisherman had seen the bomb land in the water. It took 81 days to recover the nuclear weapon from a depth of 2,600 feet. Expressing its shock over the events in Spain, the German daily Hamburger Abendblatt wrote: “More than any sandbox scenario, the bomb incident makes it clear what it means today to be ‘living with the bomb.’”
In 1968, a B-52 crashed into the ice off Greenland. The conventional explosives in its nuclear payload exploded and plutonium was released, causing a large area to become radioactive. But what the U.S. government kept secret for decades was that a reconstruction of the bomb components found at the site revealed that one nuclear warhead was missing; it had apparently drilled its way through the ice in North Star Bay. It was never found.
Apparently, 1968 was a bad year for the U.S. Air Force’s Lost & Found department. On May 22, the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Scorpion sank to a depth of 10,800 feet about 320 nautical miles south of the Azores. There were two nuclear warheads on board. Due to the considerable depth, neither the weaponry nor the submarine’s nuclear reactor has yet been recovered.
Between the late 1950’s and mid-1960’s, when the Cold War ran hottest, U.S. bombers armed with nuclear weapons were in the air around the clock, 365 days a year. Their four main routes passed over Greenland, Spain, The Mediterranean, Japan and Alaska. “In the early days of the Cold War, the aircraft lacked sufficient range to cross the Atlantic on one tank of fuel,” explains Nassauer. “Some bombers collided with their tanker planes, while others simply missed the tankers and, after running out of fuel, plunged into the sea.” Only when the bombers became capable of flying across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans on one tank of fuel did the frequency of these accidents diminish.
Probably the most absurd “broken arrow” (U.S. codespeak for accidents involving nuclear weapons) occurred on December 5, 1965, on board the U.S.S. Ticonderoga. The aircraft carrier was en route from South Vietnam to Yokosuka, Japan when a fighter-bomber, emerging from one of the ship’s giant elevators that carried it to the flight deck, plunged into the sea. The pilot, the aircraft and the nuclear bomb on board sank to a depth of 16,400 feet and were never found. The U.S. government kept the incident secret until 1981, in part because the incident proved that the U.S. did have nuclear weapons in Vietnam, despite previous official denials.
Lest one think that these mishaps are limited to foreign shores, consider that 7 of the 11 nuclear warheads that the U.S. military officially list as missing were lost within the United States. On February 5, 1958, bomber pilot Howard Richardson had to jettison the hydrogen bomb he was carrying after his plane collided with a fighter jet. The bomb disappeared in the shallow waters of Wassaw Sound, about 12 miles from Savannah, Georgia. Richardson, an experienced pilot, barely managed to land his aircraft at nearby Hunter Army Airfield.
The crew of a B-52 that exploded on January 24, 1961, as a result of a defective fuel line was less fortunate. Before the aircraft broke apart, the airmen managed to eject their dangerous nuclear payload. One of the two hydrogen bombs was parachuted safely into a tree; the other, however, sank 165 feet into a swamp near the city of Goldsboro, North Carolina — where it still lies today.
What made this incident famous, though, was the hydrogen bomb that landed in the tree; it had 6 fuses designed to prevent a detonation. When the bomb was retrieved it was learned that 5 of the 6 fuses had failed, meaning only one remaining fuse had averted a nuclear explosion. After this near-disaster, the security systems on all U.S. nuclear weapons were revised, and Washington asked the Soviets to do the same.
Residents of Savannah and Goldsboro worry today about the lingering effects from these two incidents. Do the unrecovered weapons still pose a threat? If weapons on the ocean bottom are still likely to explode, then according to Nassauer, “perhaps this risk is somewhat greater with bombs… lost on land. But virtually nothing is known about whether such bombs can explode spontaneously.”
One clear risk to the residents is exposure to radioactive material leaking from the bombs’ decaying casings into the surrounding soil. This year, U.S. troops will again be dispatched to both cities to clear the areas of radioactive soil.
According to the Military Times, six W80-1 armed nuclear warheads on AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles (ACM’s) were reported lost for 36 hours on August 29-30, 2007, after three B-52 bombers took off on a cross-country jaunt from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. According to the official account, the Air Force pilots were not even aware that they were carrying weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as once in Barksdale, they left the nuclear weapons unsecured on the runway for several hours.
U.S. Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Requirements, Major-General Richard Y. Newton III, commented on the incident, saying there was an “unprecedented” series of procedural errors, which revealed “an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards.” Unprecedented indeed, unless one postulates that the lax security was deliberate.
Your Nose Is Growing
Consider this: just the issuance of a firearm in the military initiates a rigorous accountability process involving a mountain of paperwork and authorized signatures, all part of a set of checks and balances employed by all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. When the weapon being handled is nuclear, then the chain of command required to access and load these warheads is inflexible, according to Robert Stormer, former U.S. Navy Lieutenant-Commander — only authorized servicemen and officers, certified in specific handling and loading procedures, are permitted near these warheads. And all service personnel who even touch these weapons must sign a tracking paper, making them wholly accountable for the weapons’ movement [Nuclear Weapons Personnel Reliability Program, (DoDD 5210 42)].
Each fully loaded cruise missile weighs about a ton, meaning it would take a concerted team effort to surreptitiously remove these weapons. Also, missiles intended for elimination, as these missiles were, are not transported attached to the underside of combat aircraft wings fully armed. The warheads are detached, encased, and shipped separately via a military transport plane.
Unauthorized access to or removal of nuclear weapons would be virtually impossible unless the chain of command were bypassed, involving, in this case, the deliberate tampering of paperwork and tracking procedures. The strategic bombers carrying the nuclear weapons could not have flown without the authorization of senior military officials and the base commander. Further, authorization from senior command would have been necessary to allow the servicemen to upload the nuclear weapons onto the planes. Without authorization from this chain of command, no flights would have taken place.
In the case of the so-called missing WMD’s, orders had to have been given and flight permission must have been granted. This begs answers to several key questions regarding this incident, and postulates the ultimate objective:
- Who gave the order to arm the W80-1 thermonuclear warheads on the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles?
- Where in the military hierarchy did this order originate?
- How was the order transmitted down the chain of command?
- If there were no procedural errors, what then was the underlying objective for giving these orders? In other words, was this incident related to U.S. war plans directed against Iran?
The Military Times omits noting that “the Defense Department uses a computerized tracking program to keep tabs on each one of its nuclear warheads,” according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “For the six warheads to make it onto the B-52, each one would have had to be signed out of its storage bunker and transported to the bomber.”
With regard to a final objective, perhaps the key to unraveling this unprecedented series of errors lies in the fact that Barksdale AFB is an operational bomber base whose staging area just happens to be Middle Eastern operations (read: Iran).
As Barack Obama settles into the dual roles of President of the United States and leader of the free world, I can only hope that his reasoned approach towards diplomacy will not be undermined by the relics of the past.