U.S. Regains Missile Parts; Gates Orders Investigation
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 25, 2008 The U.S. military has regained control of four non-nuclear nose cone assemblies for a Minuteman missile mistakenly sent to Taiwan in 2006, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne said during a news conference here today.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates learned of the situation on March 21 and immediately ordered that the United States regain “positive control” of the systems, Wynne said. He also notified the president of the situation.
It was the second incident with a strategic weapon in the past year. In August, an Air Force B-52 flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., carrying atomic weapons. The crew did not realize they were carrying nuclear weapons until they landed.
Today, Gates signed a memorandum directing Adm. Kirkland Donald, director of Navy Nuclear Propulsion, to conduct a comprehensive investigation “to determine the facts into how this error occurred and who is accountable throughout the chain of command,” said Christopher R. “Ryan” Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
The admiral will work with the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service. The intelligence community also will help with the investigation.
Henry said the secretary feels very strongly about this error.
“In an organization as large as DoD … there will be mistakes, but they cannot be tolerated in the arena of strategic systems -- whether nuclear or only associated equipment,” he said during the news conference.
DoD has notified the appropriate congressional committees and the Peoples’ Republic of China, he said.
The nose cone assemblies and associated electrical parts are proximity fuses for the missiles. While not technically “triggers,” a nuclear warhead atop a Minuteman would not detonate without the signal from these devices.
Preliminary information indicates that a shipment took place in response to a foreign military sales order from Taiwan for helicopter batteries, Wynne said. The Defense Logistics Agency depot at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, mistakenly shipped the fuses -- a classified system -- rather than the batteries.
The Taiwanese receiving the shipment placed it in storage upon receipt, Wynne said. “The investigation will determine the integrity of the shipping containers and their contents during the (foreign military sales) process.”
The department has initiated a complete physical inventory of all of these devices, Henry said.
“The secretary is further directing the secretaries of the Air Force and Navy to conduct a comprehensive review of all the policies, procedures as well as a physical site inventory of all nuclear and nuclear-associated materiel and equipment across their respective programs,” he said.
The original helicopter battery order was consistent with the U.S. “One-China” policy, the three joint U.S.-China communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act.
“Our policy on Taiwan arms sales has not changed,” Henry said. “This specific incident was an error in process only and is not indicative of our policies, which remain unchanged.”
Henry said it’s unclear whether the erroneous shipment violated the Missile Technology Control Regime -- an informal, voluntary association of countries seeking to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- or other treaties.