Flying Nuclear Bombs

The Air Force is reported to have loaded and flown five (some say six) nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles on a B-52H bomber – by mistake. This image shows a B-52H will a full load of 12 Advanced Cruise Missiles under the wings.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Michael Hoffman reports in Military Times that five (some say six) nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles were mistakenly flown on a B-52H bomber from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on August 30.

I disclosed in March that the Air Force had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM), and the Minot incident apparently was part of the dismantlement process of the weapon system.

Update September 23, 2007:
Contributed information to story in the Washington Post.

Update September 6, 2007:
The Air Force has issued a statement on the B-52 incident.


Managing Nuclear Weapons Custody

Beyond the safety issue of transporting nuclear weapons in the air, the most important implication of the Minot incident is the apparent break-down of nuclear command and control for the custody of the nuclear weapons. Pilots (or anyone else) are not supposed to just fly off with nuclear bombs, and base commanders are not supposed to tell them to do so unless so ordered by higher command. In the best of circumstances the system worked, and someone “upstairs” actually authorized the transport of nuclear cruise missiles on a B-52H bomber.

To keep track of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the Department of Defense and Department of Energy use several Automated Information Systems (AISs) to provide automated assistance in stockpile management, stockpile database support, in processing nuclear weapons reports and controlling weapons movements, and in coordinating materiel management for DOE spare parts:

* Defense Integration and Management of Nuclear Data Services (DIAMONDS). Automated tool that, together with the Nuclear Management Information System (NUMIS), enables users to maintain, report, track and highlight trends affecting the nuclear weapon stockpile activities ensuring continued sustainability and viability of the nuclear stockpile. Installation of DIAMONDS at Navy sites was completed in December 2006.

* Nuclear Management Information System (NUMIS). NUMIS is the official AIS of record for maintaining the National Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Databases, and is used to maintain current data on the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the custody of DOD and DOE.

* Nuclear Weapons Contingency Operations Module (NWCOM). NWCOM is a database system that provides current summarized information on all nuclear weapons. NWCOM has the capability to operate independently from the NUMIS architecture, giving users a nuclear weapons tracking system capable of wartime operations. Once fully segmented and integrated into the Global Command and Control System-Top Secret (GCCS-T), NWCOM will begin its integration into the DOD (DISA/STRATCOM) Nuclear Planning and Execution System (NPES).

* Special Weapons Information Management (SWIM) system. SWIM is a PC-based system that provides worldwide nuclear custodial units the capability to automate weapons status reports and local stockpile management tasks.


Nuclear Weapons Air Transport

Twenty-four B61 nuclear bombs lined up in the cargo hull of a C-124 cargo aircraft of the 438th Airlift Wing. Since this Air Force picture was taken, the C-124 has been retired and its mission of nuclear weapons transporter taken over by the C-17.

A Brief History of Nukes in the Air

The last time the Air Force is known to have flown nuclear weapons on a bomber was during the so-called Chrome Dome missions in the 1960s when the Air Force maintained a dozen bombers loaded with nuclear weapons in the air at any time. The program, formally known as the Airborne Alert Program, lasted between July 1961 and January 1968. The program ended abruptly on January 21, 1968, when a B-52 carrying four B28 thermonuclear bombs crashed on the ice off Thule Air Base in Greenland during an emergency landing. The accident followed another crash in Spain in 1966 and several other nuclear incidents.

Between 1968 and 1991, Air Force bombers continued to be loaded with nuclear weapons and stand alert at the end of runways on bases across the country, but flying them was not allowed due to safety concerns. The ground alert ended in September 1991 when the bombers were taken off nuclear alert as part of the first Bush administration’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative.

Although nuclear weapons are not flown on combat aircraft under normal circumstances, they are routinely flown on selected C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft, which as the Primary Nuclear Airlift Force (PNAF) are used to airlift Air Force nuclear warheads between operational bases and central service and storage facilities in the United States and in Europe (see overview here).

Trimming the Cruise Missile Inventory

The ACM transport from Minot Air Force Base is part of the Air Force’s transition to a slimmer nuclear cruise missile force. By 2012, the current inventory of 1,800 nuclear cruise missiles will be trimmed to 528. The transition will completely retire 400 ACMs and scrap about 870 Air Launch Cruise Missiles (ALCMs). Under the plan, the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base will no longer have a nuclear cruise missile capability, and all of the remaining 528 ALCMs will be based at Minot Air Force Base.

Read also the comments section:

“If the B-52 incident tells us that the military’s command and control system cannot ensure with 100% certainty which weapons are nuclear and which ones are not, imagine the implications of the wrong weapon being used in a crisis or war. ‘Sorry Mr. President, we thought it was conventional.’”

…and my comment on Google News.

Background: USAF statement | U.S. Air Force Decides to Retire Advanced Cruise Missile | U.S. Nuclear Stockpile Today and Tomorrow

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No Responses to “Flying Nuclear Bombs”

  1. Steve September 5, 2007 at 9:26 pm #

    Steve: Given that “nuclear weapons are not flown on combat aircraft under normal circumstances,” mustn’t we conclude that we are witnessing here something more than a simple “mistake?”

    If they’re just ferrying cruise missiles to be decommissioned at Barksdale, surely they’d transport them as cargo, right?

    It’s truly alarming that active nuclear warheads are flying around the country without apparent authorization up the chain of command.

    Given that Barksdale’s 8th AF is the home to the Air Operations Center, and given the Bush administration’s recent nuclear saber-rattling at Iran… could this incident perhaps be part of the U.S.’s long-standing policy of cultivating the belief among America’s adversaries that there are “crazy” elements in the U.S. who might do something unpredictable?

    Finally… this seems like a seriously major item. Why isn’t this front-page news?

    Reply: I don’t think this is other than a mistake, albeit a serious one. The Advanced Cruise Missile is indeed in the process of being retired, not readied for attack on Iran or anyone else.

    The really important implication is beyond the immediate: The United States is in the beginning of a transition to a deep integration of nuclear and conventional capabilities. The Navy has already proposed, and the Air Force is about to propose, replacing some nuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. From outside the weapons will look the same.

    The long-range bombers are already highly dual-capable and U.S. B-52s have been used repeatedly to launch conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles against high-value targets. The Minot bomber was on its way to Barksdale, but it could hypothetically have been on its way to Iraq or – in a potential future conflict – North Korea, Iran or China with nuclear cruise missiles.

    If the B-52 incident tells us that the military’s command and control system cannot ensure with 100% certainty which weapons are nuclear and which ones are not, imagine the implications of the wrong weapon being used in a crisis or war. “Sorry Mr. President, we thought it was conventional.”

    The Pentagon has a big job ahead of it in restoring Congressional and public trust in its ability to control the nation’s nuclear arsenal. HK

  2. Steinn September 6, 2007 at 10:45 am #

    Steinn: There has been some discussion of a conventionally armed variety of the ACM, and the USAF inventory of conventionally armed ALCMs appears to be relatively low. Could the ferrying to Barksdale be part of a process of converting some of the ACMs to conventional warheads? Even so, it begs the question of why a B-52 was used to ferry the missiles and why to Barksdale.

    Reply: There is no conventionally armed ACM, and the need for conventional ALCMs – CALCMs – has been met by converting nuclear ALCMs to CALCMs. I haven’t yet seen anything suggesting the ACMs will be converted to conventional missions.

    As for why the missiles were sent to Barksdale, the base already has ACMs stored and has more room for missiles than Minot. So it makes sense to send ACM shapes (the missiles without warheads) down there while awaiting a decision on what to do with them. But it doesn’t make sense to send the warheads, which would probably go to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico or Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Minot has traditionally been the ACM “center” and Barksdale the ALCM “center.”

    The airlift out of Minot has to be seen in the context of the base preparing to become the nation’s only operational cruise missile base from 2012, when the remaining 528 ALCMs will be based there. Barksdale will only retain a nuclear bomb role, if even that. HK

  3. Sean September 6, 2007 at 11:27 am #

    Sean: What are those orange things on the bombs? Parachutes? Flotation devices? Thanks.

    Reply: Each weapon is equipped with a large parachute to prevent the weapon from crashing into the ground – and the high explosives potentially detonating – in case of an accident. HK

    Correction: Rick, who says he was a nuclear weapons technician for year, sent me this helpful correction to my guess about the orange bags on the end of each weapon in the transport plane: “In this particular case, they hold the fins that were removed when double-stacking the weapons. There are other uses (depending on the weapon type) when the weapons are (were) on alert or to be otherwise loaded.” Thanks Rick. HK

  4. Frank September 6, 2007 at 11:49 am #

    Frank: I thought that the U.S. and the USSR had signed a treaty that banned the deployment of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Cruise missiles were to be limited to carrying conventional warheads only. Did this get changed at some point?

    Reply: Three treaties have provisions that relate to nuclear cruise missiles:

    1) The INF-Treaty from 1987, which prohibits the deployment of intermediate- and short-range missiles, including ground-launched cruise missiles;

    2) the START I treaty from 1991, which sets an upper limit for how many nuclear cruise missiles a bomber can carry; and

    3) the START II treaty from 1993, which established rules for converting non-ALCM bombers to a conventional role and reverting them to nuclear missions. The treaty prohibited the use of bombers converted to non-nuclear missions in nuclear operations. START II was signed by both Russia and the United States, but never fully ratified, and was abandoned by the two countries in 2002.

    As far as I know, neither side has agreed to limitations on deploying nuclear cruise missiles on designated bombers. But if anyone knows otherwise, let me know. To read these and other treaties, go here. HK

  5. Owl September 6, 2007 at 4:34 pm #

    Owl: The long-range bombers are already highly dual-capable and U.S. B-52s have been used repeatedly to launch conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles against high-value targets.

    It’s my understanding that the B-52H is designated to only carry nuclear payloads per the START treaty, and that it has pylon placements and distinguishing characteristics (like the side antenna assembly) that designate it solely for nuclear use.

    If this were a B52G there ‘might’ be a question of mistaken conventional arming because that bomber version is indeed dual use. But not the 52H.

    Reply: The B-52H is dual-capable and has been used to launch conventional cruise missiles. START does not regulate conventional cruise missiles nor does it establish the B-52H as a nuclear-only system. The B-52G was retired in the early 1990s. HK

  6. JF September 7, 2007 at 10:46 am #

    JF: To quote the motto of the National Rifle Association, “Guns do not kill people; it is people who kill people”. The geniuses who designed the “fail-safe” protocols for transporting our nukes should be smart enough to see this happening. As long as we have thousands of our nukes mated to delivery vehicles that are ready to shoot, it is a mathematical certainty that “shocking” events as such will happen.

    This is no different from millions of people owning millions of guns and bullets in the US. As long as the bullets can be readily mated to the guns, some not so fail-safe gun owners will shoot somebody else. Since nothing changes despite even more numerous shocking incidents of the latter kind, one should not expect a major departure from our nuclear policy. I would venture to say that even if the B52 crashed in Barksdale, our policy of high nuclear readiness will not change. After all, only the commander-in-chief controls the ignition code. Let’s hope that the code is safeguarded by much more fail-safe mechanisms.

    Reply: “Nukes don’t kill people, people kill people.” Now, there’s a catchy phrase. Yet the reality is that nuclear accidents and incident in the past did change nuclear policy considerably precisely because of the recognition that nuclear weapons are fundamentally different. Hope is not sufficient, however, and the investigation better provide a clear picture of what happened so confidence in the nuclear control system can be restored. HK

  7. mareislander September 7, 2007 at 6:15 pm #

    Mareislander: Pictures on the web show cruise missiles mounted on B 52s. In some, you can see all sorts of red ribbons and plastic tags hanging from the missiles. Safety pins and ID tags, I guess.

    I can’t get how the Air Force could have “mistaken” live nuke missiles for dud bound to the boneyard, loaded them on bombers, and moved them around the country. That’s a BIG mistake…

  8. kavips September 8, 2007 at 2:20 am #

    Kavips: There is speculation that since many procedures were compromised by the very same 5th wing which won 2 safety medals in 2006, that only by direct orders, from someone outside the chain of command, could a mistake of this size have possibly taken place.

    Could it truly be a case of human error? “Let’s install these conventional weapons,…boy, are they heavy today… underneath this B52? Pay no attention to those red plastic covers.” With a 39 year track record of no nukes on bombers, it is just so hard to buy….How many errors in a row would be required for an event like this to happen?

  9. Michel September 12, 2007 at 3:22 pm #

    Michel: I would say an error is highly improbable since there is a high security protocol used to load nukes on planes and for moving those nukes, only specialy fit C-130 and C-17 are allowed to do so in the protocol.

    One other thing is that Barksdale has no nukes decommisionning facilities, it is a transit base to the Middle-East.

    So were we trying to sneak nukes to a war theater for possible use in the near future?

    Were there 6 nukes loaded on the bomber and 5 recovered after they were left unchecked for many hours?

    Was it the chinese hackers or White House insiders that directed the show?

    Afterall we need to fend off all mighty Iran or they may take over the world.

    Something stinks here and it is getting brushed under the carpet of mainstream media.

    Reply: The incident has certainly raised many questions, but the ones you raise are – I believe – not only the wrong ones, but some that actually confuse the issue. Because I have noticed how unsubstantiated and conspiratory rumors about this incident have spread on the Internet, I for one want to counter some of their claims here:

    First, I don’t see anything getting brushed under the carpet by mainstream media. On the contrary, the media I talk to (and I’ve talked to a lot) is truely surprised by this incident and trying hard to explain what actually happened. It is entirely probable that this was an error.

    Second, I have seen nothing that suggests that the transport of nukes from Minot to Barksdale might indicate the US was trying to “sneak nukes to a war theater for possible use in the near future” against Iran or anyone else. If anyone wanted to “sneak” nukes into the Middle East, the wing of a B-52 bomber would be the last place to put them. But the administration is not trying to bring nuclear weapons into the Middle East – covertly or otherwise – because it doesn’t have to. It already has nuclear bombs in Italy and Turkey and others onboard Trident submarines cruising the Atlantic Ocean.

    Third, Barksdale AFB is not more of a transit base to the Middle East than other major bases in the region. Although the base’s 2 Bomb Wing has conducted operations in the Middle East, so has the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot. To my knowledge, flight routes are determined by distance, weather conditions, and location of hostile forces.

    Fourth, contrary to what you suggest, Barksdale AFB is a fully certified nuclear weapons storage facility that has all the capabilities for storing and – if necessary – inactivating nuclear cruise missiles. Actual dismantlement of the nuclear warheads, however, can only happen at the Pantex Plan in Texas. It only underscores that the transport probably was an error.

    Fifth, your question whether it was “the Chinese hackers or White House insiders that directed the show” is amazing for many reasons, but firstly because there is absolutely no credible information in the public domain showing that Chinese hackers somehow have effected the movement of the nukes. Nor is there any evidence that the White House was involved, other than being informed about it after it happened.

    Confidence in the security and control of nuclear weapons must be restored. But the Minot mystery can only be solved if we stick to the facts. HK

  10. kavips September 18, 2007 at 12:40 pm #

    Kavips: I certainly would be reassured if human error turns out to be the culprit. But at this point I do not see how it could be possible, unless someone switched over the red covers for blue and yellow ones used by dummy warheads. Two problems stand out with that explanation. One, the loading crew, having won two citation medals earlier that year for their exemplary safety record, could instantly tell by the weight that the warheads were nuclear, and 2) reports that the red covers are what identified the missiles as nukes in Barksdale, meaning that the Minot loading crew knew exactly what they were doing….

    Could you share any insight as to where within the process, moral, discipline, and training could have broken down, if it is, as we both truly wish, just an accident?

    Reply: So far I haven’t heard anything that suggests anything other than a mistake – albeit a serious one.

    Most of the reactions have focused on how the nuclear procedures could go wrong. But if a mislabeling had already occurred in the igloos and the outside crew believed they were handling unarmed missiles, then many of the security procedures that would have applied for nuclear missiles might not have kicked in.

    We can speculate all we want, but until the investigation is completed it’s all speculation. And the investigation, so I hear, is now expected to take significantly longer than first envisioned. HK

  11. isadore September 21, 2007 at 12:50 pm #

    Isadore: Did anything happen to the personel involved in the nuclear transport incident? Did some of them die or were they killed? [shortened, ed]

    Reply: No, this was a transport incident, not a nuclear accident. There are no reports (or rumors) of any form of contamination or explosion. HK

  12. kavips September 24, 2007 at 1:15 pm #

    Kavips: What would be the weight discrepancy between a missile armed with a nuclear warheads, as compared to a missile loaded with a dummy warhead….? Exactly how large of a discrepancy would it be?

    Furthermore, I read that these warheads had a variable range of explosive power. Was this due to an adjustment mechanism, or were the warheads constructed with different weights depending upon the explosive power required?

    Would then, the warhead have to be weighed before loading, so trajectory information would [not] compromise its flying ability?

    Reply: The W80 warhead weighs somehwere around 270 lbs. So it would have been a considerable discrepancy between the two pylons. However, unarmed missiles are thought to carry a ballast in the empty warhead section to balance the missile during transport, so there would be no weight discrepancy.

    As for the yield, the W80 has a variable yield of 5-150 kilotons. It is not clear how the yield is selected, but it might be an electronic system that allows the ground crew or bomber crew to chose between less than a handful pre-set yield options depending on the mission. HK

  13. Dave September 24, 2007 at 5:05 pm #

    Dave: Why do you think we haven’t seen calls for hearings in Congress on this breach of security? Surely if this had happened in Russia, the Senate and House would be holding major public hearings into the lax security of nukes in Russia, yet there are no calls for hearings now. Why not?

    Reply: The chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee early on sent Defense Secretary Gates a letter stating their concern and interest in this matter. While DOD is finishing its investigation, I suspect Congress is in a wait-and-see position pending the explanation DOD presents later. If that explanation or the changes it triggers in the nuclear weapons control systems are in sufficient then we could very well see a hearing in Congress.

    But this whole mess is about restoring confidence, both domestically and internationally, in the U.S. control of nuclear weapons. So DOD has to find some real explanation and present a convincing fix to restore that confidence. HK

  14. Michel September 25, 2007 at 3:07 pm #

    Michel: “First, I don’t see anything getting brushed under the carpet by mainstream media. On the contrary, the media I talk to (and I’ve talked to a lot) is truely surprised by this incident and trying hard to explain what actually happened. It is entirely probable that this was an error.”

    If it is not swept under the rug, it is spinned in the desinformation mode big time according to the Washington Post.

    There are times to be optimistic and times to ask tough questions. But questions must be answered honestly.

    I do think you do an excellent job but find that replies to post are often of a very optimistic view.

    Peace and Love wishes from an old Hippy.

    Reply: Thanks for the peace and love, but I still don’t see this story being “brushed under the carpet by mainstream media.” For sure, the DOD may have an interest in spinning this in a certain way, but I think their focus now is more on damage control and figuring out what actually happened. HK

  15. kavips October 13, 2007 at 11:06 pm #

    Kavips: I am searching for a way to reconcile the first-mention of 5 armed missiles on that plane, and within 72 hours later, or (nine days after the incident occurred) that number was raised to six.

    It appears from investigating the resources on the ground in Barksdale, that five weapons were on the pylon. Minot is insisting that the pylon was “full” with six armed missiles. With your expertise, do you have any evidence that could shed light on how such a mistake could have naturally occurred, particularly with all the redundant systems in place to protect the loss of nuclear material?

    Reply: The incident was first reported to have included five nuclear ACMs, but that appears to have been a mistake and the number reported now is six.

    As for evidence that can shed light on how this could happen, I will refer to what I have already written about this in this blog, and stated in interviews with news papers and magazines (use Internet search engines to search for those stories, or look here). I have not seen additional information that says otherwise, although there have been many conspiracy theories as you can image.

    Beyond that, we’re all waiting for the findings of the internal investigation that is underway in the Air Force and other agencies. In addition to that, Congress has indicated that it intends to hold hearings, although it is unclear at this point whether they will be open to the public. HK

  16. A. McCrory February 19, 2008 at 11:29 am #

    Rick must not have been a nuke tech for a few years. I spent a career as one. The fins are not removed on B61s for shipping. The bags contain ancillary cables and equipment that are provided with each weapon. Older weapons had to have fins removed but not newer ones.

    Sean Says:

    September 6th, 2007 at 11:27 am
    Sean: What are those orange things on the bombs? Parachutes? Flotation devices? Thanks.

    Reply: Each weapon is equipped with a large parachute to prevent the weapon from crashing into the ground – and the high explosives potentially detonating – in case of an accident. HK

    Correction: Rick, who says he was a nuclear weapons technician for year, sent me this helpful correction to my guess about the orange bags on the end of each weapon in the transport plane: “In this particular case, they hold the fins that were removed when double-stacking the weapons. There are other uses (depending on the weapon type) when the weapons are (were) on alert or to be otherwise loaded.” Thanks Rick. HK

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