WASHINGTON — The Air Force is planning to fire at least five officers for an incident in which nuclear-armed missiles were mistakenly loaded on a B-52 bomber and flown across the U.S. — the worst known violation of nuclear security rules in decades.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is scheduled to be briefed Friday on the plan to fire the officers and other results of a six-week Air Force probe into the Aug. 30 incident. No one noticed for hours that the weapons were on the bomber, several Defense Department officials said.
One said the investigation found long-established procedures for handling the munitions were not followed and it recommends that five or more officers be relieved of their duties.
All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. Two also said parts of the report were still being reviewed by senior Air Force officials, though it was unclear whether any changes in it were planned.
The Air Force said last month that one munitions squadron commander was fired shortly after the August flight and that ground crews and others involved had been temporarily decertified for handling weapons.
In an embarrassing incident that lawmakers called very disturbing, the B-52 mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., with the missiles mounted under one of the bomber's wings.
Series of mistakes
The officials declined to say what procedures were not followed. But the mishandling in August would have required not one mistake — but a whole series of lapses by a number of people in order for armed weapons — as opposed to unarmed ones — to be inadvertently taken out of a storage bunker, mounted on the B-52, misidentified on a flight manifest and flown across the country for some three hours without anyone noticing.
The plane also sat on a runway for hours with the missiles after arriving in Louisiana before the breach was known — meaning a total of 36 hours passed before the missiles were properly secured, officials have said.
The Air Combat Command ordered a command-wide stand-down — instituted base by base and completed Sept. 14 — to set aside time for personnel to review procedures, officials said.
The incident was so serious that it required President Bush and Gates be quickly informed.
The Air Force said there was never any danger to the public because the weapons are designed with multiple safety features that ensure the warheads do not detonate accidentally.
But officials also have asserted over the years that such a mistake could not happen because there were numerous procedures in place to ensure the safe handling of nuclear weapons.
An Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Edward Thomas, declined to confirm Thursday morning what punishments were planned or give any details of the probe's findings, saying Gates had not gotten the full report and those to be disciplined were not to be notified until later Thursday.
Sending a message
Three other defense officials said the Air Force planned to formally announce its investigation results and the punishments at a Pentagon press conference Friday. But two of them said that could be delayed if, for instance, Gates wants further information after is briefed or more senior officials in the Air Force, who were still discussing the report, disagree with the decision.
The anticipated disciplinary actions would be the most severe ever brought in the Air Force in connection with the handling of nuclear weapons, The Washington Post said in Thursday editions, quoting an unidentified official who said that was aimed at sending a message about accountability.
The weapons involved were 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 soon, and they said after the breach that the missiles were being flown to Barksdale for decommissioning but were supposed to be unarmed ones.
Three weeks into the Air Force investigation, Gates also asked for an outside inquiry to determine whether the incident indicates a larger security problem on the transfer of weapons. Official said his request for the inquiry, which is still under way, did not reflect any dissatisfaction with how the Air Force was conducting its investigation.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Thursday that President Bush "appreciates the fact that Secretary Gates (had moved quickly) to find out what went wrong, make sure it doesn't happen again, and hold people to account if anyone did something wrong."
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