- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

First, the Air Force mistakenly flew armed nuclear warheads in a B-52 bomber over three states and then yesterday officials disclosed another mishap — fuses for Minuteman nuclear missiles were shipped to Taiwan instead of the batteries they ordered.

Defense officials learned of the mix-up from the Taiwanese government. The fuses, which have since been recovered, had been in Taiwan for more than a year and a half.

The situation prompted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to launch a full-scale investigation into the incident.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said at a Pentagon press briefing yesterday that the accidental delivery of four electrical fuses for intercontinental ballistic missile nose-cone assembly will be investigated. The original helicopter batteries order was 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.”

Criticism is expected from China, a vehement opponent of Taiwan’s militarization. Chinese officials could not be reached for comment.

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

The components were sent from one U.S. Air Force base to another in 2005, before being delivered overseas in 2006, Mr. Wynne added.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president “appreciates that they are taking action and there is a full investigation under way, and he’s glad that the result is that they got the parts back.”

Defense officials who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity, said the mistake poses huge concerns regarding the appropriate storage of classified material and raises questions about how the fuses — which should have been kept separated 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. “It’s really unacceptable.”

In October, the Air Force punished 70 airmen involved in the accidental fly over of an armed nuclear B-52 bomber that had flown from Minot in North Dakota to Barksdale in Louisiana earlier in the year. Defense officials said the mistake was not noticed until a day later.

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 despite repeated questions from reporters.

Larry Wortzel, a former military officer who has worked in security assistance, said that the parts are tracked through “a highly complicated numerical system.”

Mr. Wortzel said that Defense Department parts contain at least 20 numerical numbers, which can be compared to liking of “car parts” in an automotive store. He said that classified components are administered separately but that they could be stored in the same building with nonclassified parts.

“Somebody could have pulled the wrong part off the shelf,” Mr. Wortzel said. “It’s potentially damaging and a serious mistake, absent an investigation but more than likely an obvious accident.”

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.”

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