updated 9/20/2007 7:52:01 PM ET 2007-09-20T23:52:01

Three weeks after the Air Force began investigating the mistaken arming of a B-52 bomber with nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked for an outside inquiry led by a retired general who once commanded the strategic bomber fleet, an official said Thursday.

In the embarrassing incident, a B-52 mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30. The missiles were mounted onto pylons under the bomber’s wings, but the Air Force said there was never any danger to the public.

The mistake, revealed publicly by the Military Times newspapers, was so serious that President Bush and Gates were quickly informed and Gates has received regular updates from the Air Force on progress in its investigation.

Gates’s press secretary, Geoff Morrell, told reporters that the defense chief asked Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff, to undertake a review of the incident. That is in addition to the existing Air Force probe headed by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, director of air and space operations at Air Combat Command, which is responsible for all Air Force bombers and fighters.

Asked why Gates felt it necessary to launch an independent review of the incident, Morrell said it did not reflect any dissatisfaction with the way the Air Force is conducting its investigation.

“But I think he believes that in an incident of this nature, it’s important to get to the bottom of it,” Morrell said. “And he believes an outside set of eyes may be additionally helpful to, sort of, get a better sense of what went wrong and how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.”

An Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Edward Thomas, said his service’s probe should be done within several weeks.

“Our response has been swift and focused,” Thomas said.

The weapon involved in the Aug. 30 incident was the Advanced Cruise Missile, a “stealth” weapon developed in the 1980s with the ability to evade detection by Soviet radars. The Air Force said in March that it had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile fleet in the near future.

Ex-Air Force official's background
Welch is president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Defense Analysis, which administers three federally funded research centers that do analytical work for the Defense Department.

He also is a member of the Defense Science Board, which advises the secretary of defense on technical matters. A spokeswoman for Welch, Amy Cohen at the Institute for Defense Analysis, said Welch told her that his review of the B-52 incident was under the auspices of the Defense Science Board, but he did not elaborate on precisely what the board had been asked to do.

Welch retired from the Air Force in 1990 after serving as its chief of staff. He previously was commander of Strategic Air Command, which operated the bomber fleet and was dissolved when an Air Force reorganization created Air Combat Command to operate all of its combat aircraft.

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