.....The Stratofortress bomber, based at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was flying a dozen advanced cruise missiles to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30. But crews inadvertently loaded half of them with nuclear warheads attached.
WASHINGTON - An Air Force B-52 bomber carrying six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads flew across the central United States last week after the nuclear weapons were mistakenly attached to the plane's wing, defense officials said Wednesday.
The Stratofortress bomber, based at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was flying a dozen advanced cruise missiles to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30. But crews inadvertently loaded half of them with nuclear warheads attached.
The Air Force quickly launched an investigation that is expected to take several weeks. The munitions squadron commander was relieved of his duties, and crews involved with the mistaken load have been temporarily decertified for handling munitions, one official said.
While acknowledging the seriousness of the error, Air Force officials called it an "isolated incident." They emphasized that the warheads were not activated for use and at no time posed a threat to the public during the 3 1/2-hour trip covering more than 1,100 miles.
Even so, the mistake raised serious questions at a time when the United States is pressuring countries such as Russia to tighten their control over nuclear bombs and the materials that can be used to make such weapons.
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the mishandling of the weapons "deeply disturbing" and said the committee would press the military for details. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the Homeland Security Committee, said it was "absolutely inexcusable."
"Nothing like this has ever been reported before, and we have been assured for decades that it was impossible," Markey said.
The missiles, part of an Air Force fleet of more than 450 of their kind, are in the process of being retired and normally would not carry nuclear warheads while in transit. Defense officials said the B-52's mission on Aug. 30 did not include training runs, so the missiles would not have been launched.
Two defense officials said it is unclear how safeguards for the handling of nuclear weapons were somehow skirted, allowing the missiles with the warheads to be loaded onto a pylon that was then attached to the underside of the B-52's wing.
The aircraft's pilots and crew were unaware that they were carrying nuclear warheads, officials said. Airmen in Louisiana discovered the error after the bomber arrived.
"Essentially, this is an issue of a departure from our very exacting standards," said Lt. Col. Edward Thomas, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon. "The Air Force maintains the highest standards of safety and precision, so any deviation from these well-established munitions procedures is very serious and we are responding swiftly."
According to Air Force officials, the weapons are designed with multiple safety features that ensure the warheads don't accidentally detonate.
Arming the weapons requires a number of stringent protocols and authentication codes that must be followed for detonation. And they are designed to withstand a significant impact, including an aircraft crash, without detonating.
Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates was informed of the incident early Friday and has been receiving daily progress reports. Morrell said President Bush also was notified.
The Air Combat Command has ordered a commandwide stand down on Sept. 14 to review procedures, officials said.
The nuclear warheads carried across the central United States ranged from 5 to 150 kilotons in destructive force, according to the Military Times newspapers, which first reported the incident.
"You can wipe out a good-sized city with a 5-kiloton blast," said Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace. "A 150-kiloton warhead is 10 times the size of what they dropped on Hiroshima."
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