Nuclear Safety and the Saga About the Missing Bent Spear

Advanced Cruise Missile loading on B-52H bomber at Minot Air Force Base

By Hans M. Kristensen

The recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Air Force nuclear weapons safety was a welcome but long-overdue event. Internal reports about deteriorating nuclear weapon safety and surety in the Air Force have been accumulating since the early 1990s, but six nuclear weapons had to “disappear” for a day from Minot Air Force Base last August to get the Pentagon and Congress to finally pay attention. Had it not been for reporter Michael Hoffman at Military Times, the incident likely would have been filed away in secret cabinets as well.

Two internal investigations have identified numerous deficiencies in the handling and management of nuclear weapons within the military and have recommended substantial changes. Some of the obvious recommendations – such as not storing nuclear and conventional weapons in the same bunker and that personnel must follow the rules – have now been implemented. Others will require more effort.

Yet the investigations have revealed an inherent problem in post-Cold War nuclear planning: self-management and lack of independent oversight. Indeed, the investigations themselves appear to have been hampered by the same shortcomings. The result is an inherent conflict between scrutinizing and promoting the nuclear mission and a reluctance to change things too much.

As a consequence, the reviews recommend revitalizing the nuclear mission and returning the bombers to a heightened nuclear alert posture to improve safety, while missing the most obvious and effective fix: removing nuclear weapons from bomber bases and ending the operational nuclear bomber mission.

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