Air Force Relieves Commanders Involved in Nuclear Weapons Incident
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2007 – The Air Force has relieved three commanders and disciplined an undisclosed number of others in connection with an Aug. 29 “Bent Spear” incident in which nuclear-equipped missiles were unknowingly transported nearly 1,500 miles on the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress bomber.
“Bent Spear” is a Defense Department reporting term referring to a nuclear-weapons incident that is serious but does not include the threat of detonation. Officials said the weapons were never unsecured.
Relieved from duty this week were Col. Bruce C. Emig, 5th Bomb Wing commander at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Cynthia M. Lundell, the 5th Bomb Wing’s maintenance group commander, and Col. Todd C. Westhauser, 2nd Operations Group commander at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. Emig and Lundell both assumed their commands in June 2007. Westhauser assumed command in June 2006.
Six nuclear warheads were flown from an ammunition bunker at Minot to Barksdale for storage. The AGM-129 cruise missiles were supposed to be unarmed. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne blamed the error on a breakdown in munitions handling procedures.
“This was an unacceptable mistake and a clear deviation from our exacting standards,” Wynne said at a Pentagon news conference today.
The firings come after a six-week Air Force investigation. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was briefed on the report today.
“There a number of other individuals who have been relieved of their duties as well,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III, a former B-52 pilot and the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, at today’s news conference.
Newton said the incident resulted from a failure to follow longstanding procedures that have proven to be sound. “This was an unacceptable error that resulted in an unprecedented string of procedural failures,” the general said.
Newton said the investigation found that there has been “erosion” of adherence to weapons-handing standards at the two bases involved. He stopped short of saying exactly how many airmen had been disciplined to date, but did say that four other disciplinary actions were taken at the lieutenant colonel level and below. Newton cited privacy reasons for not disclosing the names of the others.
Lt. Gen. Norman R. Seip, 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern commander, has been tasked to review the report and has been given jurisdiction for convening courts-martial if he deems them appropriate, Newton said.
The 5th Bomb Wing has been decertified from handling munitions, and all tactical ferry operations have been suspended across the Air Force.
The series of procedural errors began at the start of the morning that the pylon – six missiles packaged together for loading – was to be transported, Newton said.
First, crews did not inspect all of the pylons in the weapons storage area. Then, the crew hauling the pylon by trailer to the aircraft failed to inspect the missiles. The Minot mission control center failed to verify the status of the pylons in a database. And finally, the B-52 crew navigator did not check the missiles, which were loaded on the left wing ready for transport. The navigator did check the pylon loaded on the right wing, which was correctly disarmed.
“The pylon carrying the wrong weapons was never inspected,” Newton said.
The B-52 landed that morning at Barksdale, where munitions handlers followed correct procedures, discovered the error and notified officials.
In addition to the Air Force investigation, Gates has asked retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch to lead an ongoing Defense Science Board standing task force on nuclear weapons surety to review security procedures and department policy. Congress has called for a “top-to-bottom” review of nuclear procedures in the Defense and Energy departments. And the Air Force will charter a “Blue Ribbon” review of all aspects of nuclear weapons policy and procedure across all levels of command.
“We will determine areas that need to be held to a higher account and hold those accountable who fall short of our standards. We are determined to understand what mistakes were made and what changes are needed to ensure that they will not be repeated,” Wynne said.