Flying Nuclear Bombs

By September 5, 2007

The Air Force is reported to have loaded and flown five (some say six) nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles on a B-52H bomber – by mistake. This image shows a B-52H will a full load of 12 Advanced Cruise Missiles under the wings.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Michael Hoffman reports in Military Times that five (some say six) nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles were mistakenly flown on a B-52H bomber from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on August 30.

I disclosed in March that the Air Force had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM), and the Minot incident apparently was part of the dismantlement process of the weapon system.

Update September 23, 2007:
Contributed information to story in the Washington Post.Update September 6, 2007:
The Air Force has issued a statement on the B-52 incident.

Managing Nuclear Weapons Custody

Beyond the safety issue of transporting nuclear weapons in the air, the most important implication of the Minot incident is the apparent break-down of nuclear command and control for the custody of the nuclear weapons. Pilots (or anyone else) are not supposed to just fly off with nuclear bombs, and base commanders are not supposed to tell them to do so unless so ordered by higher command. In the best of circumstances the system worked, and someone “upstairs” actually authorized the transport of nuclear cruise missiles on a B-52H bomber.

To keep track of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the Department of Defense and Department of Energy use several Automated Information Systems (AISs) to provide automated assistance in stockpile management, stockpile database support, in processing nuclear weapons reports and controlling weapons movements, and in coordinating materiel management for DOE spare parts:

* Defense Integration and Management of Nuclear Data Services (DIAMONDS). Automated tool that, together with the Nuclear Management Information System (NUMIS), enables users to maintain, report, track and highlight trends affecting the nuclear weapon stockpile activities ensuring continued sustainability and viability of the nuclear stockpile. Installation of DIAMONDS at Navy sites was completed in December 2006.

* Nuclear Management Information System (NUMIS). NUMIS is the official AIS of record for maintaining the National Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Databases, and is used to maintain current data on the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the custody of DOD and DOE.

* Nuclear Weapons Contingency Operations Module (NWCOM). NWCOM is a database system that provides current summarized information on all nuclear weapons. NWCOM has the capability to operate independently from the NUMIS architecture, giving users a nuclear weapons tracking system capable of wartime operations. Once fully segmented and integrated into the Global Command and Control System-Top Secret (GCCS-T), NWCOM will begin its integration into the DOD (DISA/STRATCOM) Nuclear Planning and Execution System (NPES).

* Special Weapons Information Management (SWIM) system. SWIM is a PC-based system that provides worldwide nuclear custodial units the capability to automate weapons status reports and local stockpile management tasks.

Nuclear Weapons Air Transport

Twenty-four B61 nuclear bombs lined up in the cargo hull of a C-124 cargo aircraft of the 438th Airlift Wing. Since this Air Force picture was taken, the C-124 has been retired and its mission of nuclear weapons transporter taken over by the C-17.

A Brief History of Nukes in the Air

The last time the Air Force is known to have flown nuclear weapons on a bomber was during the so-called Chrome Dome missions in the 1960s when the Air Force maintained a dozen bombers loaded with nuclear weapons in the air at any time. The program, formally known as the Airborne Alert Program, lasted between July 1961 and January 1968. The program ended abruptly on January 21, 1968, when a B-52 carrying four B28 thermonuclear bombs crashed on the ice off Thule Air Base in Greenland during an emergency landing. The accident followed another crash in Spain in 1966 and several other nuclear incidents.

Between 1968 and 1991, Air Force bombers continued to be loaded with nuclear weapons and stand alert at the end of runways on bases across the country, but flying them was not allowed due to safety concerns. The ground alert ended in September 1991 when the bombers were taken off nuclear alert as part of the first Bush administration’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative.

Although nuclear weapons are not flown on combat aircraft under normal circumstances, they are routinely flown on selected C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft, which as the Primary Nuclear Airlift Force (PNAF) are used to airlift Air Force nuclear warheads between operational bases and central service and storage facilities in the United States and in Europe (see overview here).

Trimming the Cruise Missile Inventory

The ACM transport from Minot Air Force Base is part of the Air Force’s transition to a slimmer nuclear cruise missile force. By 2012, the current inventory of 1,800 nuclear cruise missiles will be trimmed to 528. The transition will completely retire 400 ACMs and scrap about 870 Air Launch Cruise Missiles (ALCMs). Under the plan, the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base will no longer have a nuclear cruise missile capability, and all of the remaining 528 ALCMs will be based at Minot Air Force Base.

Read also the comments section:

“If the B-52 incident tells us that the military’s command and control system cannot ensure with 100% certainty which weapons are nuclear and which ones are not, imagine the implications of the wrong weapon being used in a crisis or war. ‘Sorry Mr. President, we thought it was conventional.'”

…and my comment on Google News.

Background: USAF statement | U.S. Air Force Decides to Retire Advanced Cruise Missile | U.S. Nuclear Stockpile Today and Tomorrow

Categories: Nuclear Weapons, United States