Air Force Explains How Nuclear Weapons Were Loaded Onto Cross-Country B-52 Flight

Friday, October 19th 2007, 2:00 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Air Force is poised to report Friday on its six-week investigation into how nuclear-armed missiles were accidentally flown across the country without anyone noticing for more than a day.

Officials early Friday afternoon were briefing Defense Secretary Robert Gates on their probe into the Aug. 29-30 incident _ one of the worst known breaches of nuclear weapons procedures in decades.

Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne scheduled a news conference to publicly explain how the lapse happened and what would be done about it.

Officials planned to relieve several officers of their duties because the probe found that long-established procedures for handling the munitions were not followed, Defense Department officials said Thursday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

In an embarrassing incident that lawmakers and military experts called very disturbing, the B-52 was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The plane sat on the tarmac for hours with the missiles after arriving in Louisiana before the breach was known _ meaning a total of some 36 hours passed before the missiles were properly secured, officials have said.

The incident was so serious that it required President Bush and Gates to be quickly alerted.

The Air Combat Command ordered a command-wide stand-down _ instituted base by base and completed Sept. 14 _ to set aside time for personnel to review procedures, officials said.

The weapons involved were the Advanced Cruise Missile, a ``stealth'' weapon developed in the 1980s with the ability to evade detection by Soviet radars. The Air Force said in March that it had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile fleet soon, and officials said after the breach that the missiles were being flown to Barksdale for decommissioning but were supposed to be disarmed.

Three weeks into the Air Force investigation, Gates also asked for an outside inquiry to determine whether the incident indicates a larger security problem on the transfer of weapons. Official said his request for the inquiry, which is still under way, did not reflect any dissatisfaction with how the Air Force was conducting its investigation.