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Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Commentary, 14 September 2007
Aerospace, Global Security Issues
The 'disappearance' of nuclear weapons, however brief, sat in the realm of fiction, until August 30 that is....

In the 1965 James Bond movie ‘Thunderball’ an RAF Vulcan bomber is hijacked by an insider working for the ‘bad guys’ and ditched into the sea so that its nuclear weapons can be stolen. A similar story is played out in the 1996 Holywood movie ‘Broken Arrow’, where John Travolta sabotages a stealth bomber to the same effect. To watch such fictional movies requires a suspension of disbelief as those who are familiar with nuclear weapons in RAF or USAF service appreciate the comprehensive procedures and controls which are in place to both protect the weapons and ensure their employment is in accordance with meticulous safeguards. It is therefore justifiably amazing to learn that on August 30 a USAF B-52 unintentionally flew six nuclear weapons between two air bases in the US and that the error was not discovered until the aircraft landed at its destination. It is extremely difficult to see how such an error could be made and it will undoubtedly become a notorious example of institutional failure which will be used as a ‘lessons identified’ case study for years to come.

The extent of the breakdown in the authorized process and control is very serious indeed. For such a mistake to happen requires not one but many failures to follow approved procedures and the seriousness of the incident is amplified by the fact that a significant number of personnel would have been involved in it. These include those with responsibility for storage and release of the weapons, those who transported them from the ‘bomb dump’, the armament engineers who loaded the missiles onto the aircraft, other groundcrew who conduct pre-flight preparation of the aircraft and not least the aircrew who accept, check and fly the aircraft. Understandably, the USAF is conducting a rigorous investigation to find out what (repeatedly) went wrong, and it is already formally reporting that preliminary disciplinary action has been taken against some personnel. The seriousness of the incident and the fact that the investigation is so soon after the event should ensure that the omissions, genuine mistakes or culpable neglect that culminated in this embarrassing episode can be swiftly identified and corrected.

As an incident that was seemingly only possible in the realm of fiction has become a reality it will doubtless encourage those with an appetite for conspiracy theories, cast a shadow over the professional credibility of the US military and cause obvious concern amongst the ranks of other nuclear powers. None of these effects would be welcomed by USAF chiefs, but far more worrying would be any indication that the breakdown in supervision and procedural discipline which culminated in such a massive error is a manifestation of institutional fatigue brought on by the strain of enduring expeditionary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that the B-52 Wing involved in the incident would not routinely deploy aircraft to Iraq or Afghanistan this is unlikely, nevertheless the USAF has made 14 September a command-wide mission stand-down for Air Combat Command so that all units may focus on operating procedures and professional standards. This is a prudent move but it is unlikely that public confidence in the US Air Force will be fully restored until the investigation into what went wrong on 30 August produces an unclassified report into the incident and a set of concrete measures to prevent its recurrence.

Paul Smyth, Head of Aerospace Programme, RUSI

The views expressed here do not nessecarily reflect those of the Institute

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