Leadership: Stranger Than Fiction

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October 20, 2007: The U.S. Air Force is letting heads roll because of sloppy handling of nuclear weapons last August. Back then, cruise missiles, that usually carried nuclear warheads, were being disarmed (their nuclear warheads removed, and dummy warheads installed in their place) at Minot, North Dakota. The disarmed missiles were then flown to Barksdale, Louisiana for destruction. Through a sequence of errors, six missiles WITH nuclear warheads were loaded onto a B-52 and flown from Minot to Barksdale. The initial error was by someone who confused missiles with nuclear warheads, with those equipped with dummy warheads. From there, the nuclear armed missiles went passed dozens of other air force personnel, were loaded on a B-52, made the three hour flight to Louisiana, then sat around at the other base for hours until weapons technicians there checked the missiles and discovered the error.

The biggest transgression here was allowing nuclear weapons to be without guards for all that time, and to be at greater risk of being stolen by, say, terrorists. Special guards are always supposed to be with nuclear weapons, whether they are in a storage bunker, being moved to the air strip, or loaded onto a bomber. Losing track of nuclear weapons, even under these rather controlled conditions, is taken very seriously in the air force, and over a dozen officers and NCOs are having their careers ruined because of it. Four officers lost their jobs. These included the Minot, North Dakota wing commander, the maintenance crew commander there, and the Barksdale, Louisiana operational group commander. The Minot munitions squadron commander had already lost his job shortly after the nukes showed up in Louisiana. Still undecided is who will be reduced in rank and fined. The air force is also considering criminal charges against some of those involved. Nearly a hundred airmen lost their nuclear weapons handling certificate. The munitions handling crew at Barksdale discovered the problem, and immediately took action (putting more guards on the aircraft and reporting the incident.)

These punishments are exposing the air force to additional criticism because, during a 1994 incident over Iraq, where two F-15 pilots shot down two Army UH-60 helicopters (mistaking them for Soviet made Mi-17s used by Iraq), and killing 26 people, there were no severe punishments. The air force leadership took a lot of heat for that, and insisted that, because it happened in a combat zone, different standards apply. Moreover, the security of nuclear weapons is particularly important because so many terrorist groups are trying to get their hands on them, and so many books and movies are describing how they could do it. It's uncertain if any novelist would have tried to use what actually happened in Minot, for a fictional account of what can happen to nuclear weapons.

 


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