The Lady Speaks

Like I Said…

Remember the whole ‘nukes over America’ mess?

Remember me saying there was no way in hell this was an accident because just getting a nuke out of storage took layers of paperwork and dealing with special procedures?

Of course, I also said, at the end of this post, that this wasn’t just a fuck-up, but a chain of them.

Turns out Minot (and perhaps the Air Force, in general) are so fucked up that nuclear missiles are actually stored with conventional ones.

At least, that’s the story now: The airmen who started this whole nightmare simply grabbed the wrong ones. Oopsie!

Well, not simply. According to the WaPo, speaking to unnamed sources, no one followed procedure – not until a sharp-eyed airman at Barksdale happened to notice these weren’t normal missiles and called a supervisor.

From the Washington Post:

Just after 9 a.m. on Aug. 29, a group of U.S. airmen entered a sod-covered bunker on North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base with orders to collect a set of unarmed cruise missiles bound for a weapons graveyard. They quickly pulled out a dozen cylinders, all of which appeared identical from a cursory glance, and hauled them along Bomber Boulevard to a waiting B-52 bomber.

The airmen attached the gray missiles to the plane’s wings, six on each side. After eyeballing the missiles on the right side, a flight officer signed a manifest that listed a dozen unarmed AGM-129 missiles. The officer did not notice that the six on the left contained nuclear warheads, each with the destructive power of up to 10 Hiroshima bombs.

That detail would escape notice for an astounding 36 hours […]


A simple error in a missile storage room led to missteps at every turn, as ground crews failed to notice the warheads, and as security teams and flight crew members failed to provide adequate oversight and check the cargo thoroughly. An elaborate nuclear safeguard system, nurtured during the Cold War and infused with rigorous accounting and command procedures, was utterly debased, the investigation’s early results show.

The incident came on the heels of multiple warnings — some of which went to the highest levels of the Bush administration, including the National Security Council — of security problems at Air Force installations where nuclear weapons are kept. The risks are not that warheads might be accidentally detonated, but that sloppy procedures could leave room for theft or damage to a warhead, disseminating its toxic nuclear materials. [emphasis mine]

Read the whole article here.

The whole system collapsed, and why? Because the first step was making sure you were grabbing conventional missiles. From the moment those airmen reached for the wrong ones, everyone involved simply assumed they were not nuclear-equipped.

And what happens when we assume, boys and girls?

Okay, you can sort of see how it could happen. I mean, we’ve all grabbed the can of spinach off a shelf, thinking we were grabbing the green beans, so… okay.

Except for one thing, pointed out by sjm12561 in the comments at the WaPo: [sorry, WaPo apparently doesn’t know how to link individual comments… *sigh*]

Let’s say Minot does store conventional and nuclear munitions together which I don’t believe as the career fields supporting the two are different and the security requirements are completely mismatched.

Anyway, if the two are stored together whenever you access an igloo you would follow the procedures you have for nuclear weapons, not conventional. Two man rule would always be in effect until that igloo was closed and it had been clearly shown all nuclear weapons accounted for. [my emphasis]

A special security detail would have been set up; the fire department would have been on scene, the wing leadership would have been briefed that conventional weapons were being removed for shipment and told how the nuclear weapons would be protected.

The answer given to the Post stinks.


September 23, 2007 - Posted by | America, Government, Homeland Security, Military, National Security, Nuclear Weapons, US Military, WMDs


  1. I think the comment left by sjm12561 is partially correct. Very rarely is a mishap solely caused by the screwups of a few people at the scene of the accident. We talk about assuming conv. vs. nuclear weapons, and this might have been the proximate cause of the failure, but the ultimate cause is obscured to us. Likely it is obscured to the people involved as well.

    Maybe handling requirements were relaxed for weapons only in storage (exceedingly doubtful, but possible as an informal policy). Maybe the command simply signaled to the officers and men that following the procedure wasn’t the highest proiority (over, say, getting the job done and moving things around). This is possible, because all it takes to signal that is a lack of drills and inspections and a higher pressure to do more with less time.

    Although this means that one or two airmen aren’t to blame, it doesn’t mean that the post’s summary is garbage. when thing like moving weapons becomes routinized, it is very hard to keep people on their toes about following all the (now seemingly stupid) rules.

    Comment by Adam Hyland | September 25, 2007 | Reply

  2. I quite agree. While those first few airmen in the chain are (undeservedly) getting the bulk of the blame, I would guess everyone involved had a “same-old, same-old” attitude, right up to the base commander.

    Attitude, like the proverbial smelly stuff, rolls downhill. If procedures are enforced and short-cuts disallowed, mistakes are lessened or eliminated. Add lax enforcement to cuts in force levels, differing priorities by senior commanders, etc… it’s easy to see how it can happen.

    Comment by PA_Lady | September 25, 2007 | Reply

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