15 November 2007

Center for Defense Information on Bent Spear in August

Loose Nukes Right Here At Home

By: Victoria Samson

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A common nightmare scenario for the arms control community is a nuclear weapon gone AWOL. This doesn't require a whole lot of imagination for it to be feasible, either — all you need is the breakdown of nuclear command and control for a brief moment, long enough for a device to go missing.

Of course, the countries typically used as examples of this threat are Russia or Pakistan, not the United States. We have over six decades of well-tested command and control that has multiple redundancies to ensure that no nuclear weapon will be unaccounted for. Right? Right.

And yet it was the United States that suffered an incident known as a “Bent Spear” on Aug. 29-30. As part of an effort by the Air Force to decommission 400 Advanced Cruise Missiles, air crews managed to accidentally load a B-52 bomber leaving Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota with six nuclear-armed cruise missiles, something that procedures should have prevented from occurring. Of course, in this case, “should” is the operative word, as the missiles were not discovered as the plane sat overnight in Minot and then flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

While there was not any danger of the missiles going off, this incident is unnerving for several reasons. First and foremost, the whereabouts of six nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal were unknown for a day and a half. That is completely unacceptable. Second, the reason the Air Force stopped flying nuclear weapons over U.S. territory back in the 1960s was that there were too many accidents. We are lucky that nothing untoward happened to the B-52 in question.

On a final note, there is one aspect of this incident that is rarely mentioned. As long as the United States relies upon nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent, other countries will do so as well. And if we can suffer this sort of erosion in the security procedures surrounding our nuclear weapons, they can too.

Next time, it might not be a friendly aircrew from our own country discovering the loose nukes; next time, we could find out the hard way that nuclear weapons are missing.

— Victoria Samson is a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information.

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