Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has launched an investigation into last week’s discovery of fuses manufactured for nuclear missiles being sent mistakenly to Taiwan in 2006.

Taiwanese officials notified the United States about the fuses, although the time frame of that notification was not clear. The situation is bound to spark criticism from China, a vehement opponent of Taiwan’s militarization. Chinese officials could not be reached for comment.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said at a Pentagon press briefing today that four electrical fuses for intercontinental ballistic missile nose-cone assembly had been sent instead of helicopter batteries, which were ordered by Taiwan as part of a foreign military sale.

“The DoD has initiated an investigation to determine what happened and how,” Mr. Wynne said. “The investigation will determine the integrity of the shipping containers and their contents during the foreign military sales process.”

Although the fuses did not contain nuclear material, they are considered highly classified and were sent in shipping containers that were stored in Taiwan since their arrival more than a year ago. The fuses enable “the electrical firing mechanism that allows” the missile “to detonate — just like the fuse on a stick of dynamite,” Mr. Wynne said.

The fuses, which were under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Air Force, were sent from one Air Force base to another in 2005, before being delivered overseas, Mr. Wynne added.

According to Department of Defense officials who spoke to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity, the mistake poses huge concerns regarding the appropriate storage of classified material and raises questions about how the fuses, which should have been kept separate from nonclassified material, ended up in a shipment of helicopter batteries.

“I believe quite a few people will lose their jobs over this,” a Defense official said.

Principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, Ryan Henry, said there are “multiple players” and “multiple parties involved.”

“We’ll do a thorough investigation, and those who are found responsible will be held accountable,” he said. “Our policy on Taiwan arm sales has not changed. This specific incident was an error in process only and was not indicative of a policy change. We made an error in execution, and we notified them as soon as we were aware of it.”

Mr. Henry would not discuss how China responded to the incident, but he did say that the fuses had been recovered.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, called the incident “serious” and added that he looks “forward to seeing the results of a thorough investigation.”

The United States’ unofficial relationship with Taiwan is governed by the one-China policy, the Taiwan Relations Act and the three U.S.-China Joint Communiques.

Taiwan was formed in 1949 by fleeing nationalist forces during the mainland civil war with the Communists. The U.S. government switched recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979 and current relations are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act, which provides defensive arms to Taiwan to stave off attacks.

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