Late last month, the US Air Force transported a dozen cruise missiles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The cargo, unbeknownst to the crew, included six nuclear warheads, with the power to destory 60 Hiroshimas. As they were moved across the country, the nukes went undetected for 36 hours. In an explosive front page story today, the Washington Post asks the question: "How Could It Have Happened?"
"It was the first known flight by a nuclear-armed bomber over US airspace, without special high-level authorization, in nearly 40 years," Post reporters Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick write. A high-ranking former Air Force official called it "one of the biggest mistakes in [Air Force] history."
The B-52 plane carrying the nukes sat on the tarmac in North Dakota for 15 hours with only minimal security protection. It was not authorized to transport such weapons. The episode, the Post writes, "may not have been a fluke but a symptom of deeper problems in the handling of nuclear weapons now that Cold War anxieties have abated." The military’s post-Cold War nuclear safeguard system is described as "utterly debased."
The Bush Administration was repeatedly warned about the potential for security breaches at Air Force instillations housing nuclear weapons. A 2003 Air Force inspector general report, according to the article, "found that half of the ‘nuclear security’ inspections conducted that year resulted in failing grades." Among those flunking the test was the Minot base in North Dakota. The report attributed the problems to "the demands of supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."