Taiwan notified the United States in early 2007 that it had been sent potentially hazardous material instead of the helicopter batteries it had ordered, but the U.S. military did not respond until this year, Pentagon officials told NBC News on Tuesday.
The equipment was electrical fuses for intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the revelation has triggered an investigation of the security of U.S. weapons and raised concerns over U.S.-China relations.
E-mail traffic between the U.S. and Taiwan shows that the U.S. military recommended that Taiwanese authorities just "destroy" the incorrect shipment, but the Taiwanese refused because the shipment was marked "explosives," NBC News reported.
When officials in the Pentagon learned of the shipment last week, it took only a matter of days before the four fuses were returned to the U.S., but defense officials had to inform President Bush and the Chinese of the error.
China vehemently opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Four of the cone-shaped fuses were shipped to Taiwanese officials in fall 2006 instead of the ordered batteries.
Despite quarterly checks of the inventory, defense officials said they never knew the fuses were gone. Only after months of discussions with Taiwan over the missing batteries did the Pentagon finally realize — late last week — the gravity of what had happened.
How it happened, and whether the incident constitutes a violation of any treaty or agreement governing international sales of missile technology, were lingering questions.
Error called intolerable
At a hastily called news conference Tuesday, Ryan Henry, the No. 2 policy official in Defense Secretary Robert Gates' office, said President Bush as well as Chinese leaders were informed of the mistake — an error Henry called intolerable.
"I can not emphasize forcefully enough how strong the secretary feels about this matter and how disconcerting it is to him," Henry told reporters. He added that in an organization the size of the Defense Department there will be mistakes, but that "they cannot be tolerated in the arena in strategic systems, whether they are nuclear or only associated equipment, as was in this case."
In a comment directed at the Chinese concerns, Henry said the error does not suggest that U.S. policies on arms sales to Taiwan have changed.
Taiwan, which split from China amid civil war in 1949, is the most sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations. Chinese officials repeatedly complained about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan during meetings with Gates in Beijing last fall. The U.S. insists it only provides weapons that would allow Taiwan to defend itself.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its own and has threatened to attack should the self-governing island make its de facto independence formal. Washington has hinted that it would go to war to protect Taiwan.
Fuse incident began in 2006
The nearly two-year saga of the fuse shipment began in August 2006.
According to Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, the fuses, contained in four large shipping containers, had been sent from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to a Defense Logistics Agency warehouse at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The containers apparently ended up in an unclassified area, rather than a classified section where they belonged.
In August 2006, the cylindrical containers — measuring nearly 33 inches high and almost 19 inches in diameter — were sent to the government of Taiwan. There they were placed in storage, U.S. officials said.
In 2007 Taiwanese authorities notified U.S. officials that they did not get the batteries they had ordered, Wynne said. He said it was unclear when in 2007 the notification came, but the Pentagon officials who spoke to NBC News said it was early 2007.
Discussions ensued for months, during which, "we, on our side, thought we were talking about different sorts of batteries. There was an effort to resolve and to reimburse them," said Henry.
Finally, late last week, U.S. military officials realized what had been shipped to Taiwan and worked immediately to get the fuses back. They have now been recovered.
Utah base faulted
F.E. Warren spokesman Sgt. Kurt Arkenberg said it appeared that no one at the Cheyenne, Wyo., base was responsible for the mix-up.
"Everything was fine until they got to Hill," Arkenberg said.
Arkenberg said Hill is a repository for new and used aircraft and missile components. F.E. Warren routinely gets parts from Hill as well as sends parts to that facility, he said.
Col. Mike Morgan, commander of the 90th Space Wing at F.E. Warren, said in a statement that the Wyoming base has "stringent accountability procedures in place" for shipments to the Utah base.
Henry said that if the incident is a violation of any treaty or agreement, it was unintentional.
"We are being totally transparent. We have corrected the situation," he said. "The United States stands up to its treaty obligations and we're dealing with this in the most straightforward manner we can."
Gates has ordered a full investigation, and in a memo Tuesday he put Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald in charge and asked that Donald report back with an initial assessment by April 15.
Henry said an examination of the site in Taiwan where the components had been stored after delivery indicated that they had not been tampered with. He said the components were "quite dated," as part of a system designed in the 1960s.
The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Taiwan official said Tuesday that the island's diplomats in Washington typically do not comment on Defense Department matters.
The fuses were manufactured for use on a Minuteman strategic nuclear missile and are linked to the triggering mechanism in the nosecone, but they contain no nuclear materials.
This is the second nuclear-related mistake involving the military in recent months. Last August an Air Force B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. At the time, the pilot and crew were unaware they had nuclear arms aboard.