Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Minot/Barksdale Nuclear Bent Spear Incident-Part II

Last month I posted part 1 of my piece on Minot/Barksdale here. In it, I reviewed the incident and the Defense Science Board’s final report on the incident in question. When the story broke, there were reports and writings all over the blogosphere connecting it with possible strikes against Iran, possible diversion for false-flag attacks here at home and even Chinese electronic tampering through backdoor access to Chinese-made semiconductors allegedly used in Air Force electronics. In this piece, I will examine some of these allegations as well as some of the deaths of Air Force personnel in an attempt to determine any relationship to the above incident.

As stated in Part 1, over 36 hours on August 29-30, 2007, two pylons of 6 AGM-129 cruise missiles one package containing inert payloads, the other 6 active nuclear warheads, were removed from the 5th Bomb Wing secure ordnance storage at Minot AFB, mounted on a B-52H bomber like the one pictured above carrying identical pylon payloads and flown 1100 miles to Barksdale AFB where they were discovered by ground crews after sitting, unguarded on the tarmac for 11 hours. The resulting Nuclear Security Alert and it’s aftermath investigations led to a wholesale review of Air Force Nuclear Weapons Handling procedures and precipitated an unprecedented wave of disciplinary actions across the ranks, up to and including the resignations of the Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Moseley and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne. Although the weapons never left overall Air Force custody, they passed through five separate chain-of-custody handoffs requiring visual inspections on two bases until being discovered by the unloading crew at Barksdale.

The DSB final report found the following:

1. Over time, nuclear weapons movement procedures for bomber weapons have been compromised for expedient work processes. This evolution occurred without adequate review and approval above the Wing level.

2. There was confusion over applicability of nuclear weapons handling procedures for nuclear weapons systems that do not contain nuclear weapons.

3. The practice of storing nuclear munitions in the same facility with nuclear-test, nuclear-training and nuclear-inert devices led to confusion and unnecessary access to nuclear weapons.

4. The various levels of inspection activities failed to detect these changes in process which compromised established procedure. The Nuclear Operational Readiness Inspection process required only limited mission performance, sometimes generating as few as one aircraft being subjected to inspection.

This combined with the increased tempo of conventional bombing operations led to an overall erosion of standards within the nuclear weapons mission. In other words, it was a FUBAR SNAFU of the highest order. For me, the one glaring omission not addressed was how nuclear warheads, by all informed accounts, easily identifiable and rigorously alarmed to prevent improper movement, could have been removed from Secure Ordnance Storage in the first place without setting off alarms as soon as they crossed the threshold.

Others have asked this question and posited possible answers such as Dave Lindorff here, Wayne Madsen here and Larry Franklin here. All speculated that this was a case of an alternate command structure outside of the Presidential Command Authority staging weapons for use against Iran. Madsen went so far as to tie this incident to the Operation Orchard Strike by Israel against a suspected Syrian/North Korean nuclear site. Walter Pincus at the Washington Post generally echoed the DSB’s report here. So let’s take a look at the possible scenarios as outlined above.

Staging for an Iran Attack

Lindorff, Madsen and Franklin all posited a possible covert attack on Iran, Madsen wrote it was to coincide with the Israeli strike on Syria. To accomplish this, a separate chain of command was allegedly set up through the VP’s office and key elements in the Air Force command structure outside of the Presidential Command Authority. The problem with such a scenario is that the authentication procedures for nuclear launch in the PCA would be impossible to duplicate without detection. While there is a remote possibility that such a regime might work to move nuclear weapons, authorizing launch would be an entirely different matter. Also recognize that many of our nuclear weapons storage and Nuclear power plant facilities are secured with alarm and monitoring systems provided by Magal Security Systems, an Israeli government controlled security company. If the fix was in, this company or whichever one was tasked to build the Minot Security system would have to be involved as well. Such a situation would not reflect well on that firm’s reputation for infrastructure security. Also, since Barksdale AFB was home to the 2nd Bomber Wing flying identical aircraft and having an identical weapons inventory, including AGM-129s, it would be much easier to stage such a scenario at Barksdale with fewer personnel involved. In any case, Gates’ housecleaning of the Air Force subsequent to this incident would seem to have removed many of the alleged links in this “alternate Chain-of-Command”.

False-Flag Attack/Missing Nuclear Weapon

The initial report published by Military Times stated that 5 operational nuclear weapons were found at Barksdale. This was later revised to 6 after the source location of the weapons was determined. Many posit that one of the warheads was removed somewhere in transit. The problem with this scenario is that every report I’ve read about this incident states that the AGM-129s were always prepackaged on pylons of 6 weapons each and only the warheads themselves were removed and replaced with dummies prior to tactical ferry. Once the pylons were moved from secure storage, they were mounted on the bomber as a whole unit rather than as individual weapons. Additionally, one commenter on Johnson’s article at TPM with experience in AF nuclear weapons storage pointed out that Barksdale’s 2nd Bomber Wing is actually twice the size as the 5th Wing at Minot, with twice the weapons storage area making it a better storage site for decommissioning.

Unexplained Personnel Deaths

Five Air Force Personnel died in the months surrounding this incident. Of these, only Airman 1st Class Todd Blue was even peripherally related to the incident. He died on Sept. 10, 2007. Blue served in the 5th Security Forces Squadron at Minot. This unit is tasked with security for all weapons storage facilities of the 5th Bomb Wing. What is unclear is whether Blue was on duty on the day of the incident in question. He did NOT have any responsibility for any weapons movements scheduling or operations and his role would have been to guard the facility and any approved nuclear warhead movements outside the storage area.

Air Force Captain John Frueh was found dead on Sept. 8, 2007 near Badger Peak in Washington State, just across the border from Portland, Ore. Where he had traveled to attend a friend’s wedding. Frueh, a major-selectee was attached to the USAF Special Operations Command, part of the JSOC unit headquartered at McDill AFB, Fla. Despite these facts, no connection was ever found between Frueh and the Minot/Barksdale Incident.

Senior Airman Clint Huff and his wife, Linda, were killed in a motorcycle accident near Shreveport, La. On Sept. 15, 2007. Huff, attached to the 26th Operational Weather Squadron at Barksdale, also has no known connection to the Minot/Barksdale incident.

1st Lieutenant Weston Kissel of the 23rd Bomber Squadron of the 5th Bomb Wing was killed in a solo motorcycle accident while on leave in Tennessee on July 17, 2007. While Kissel was a B-52 pilot, his death a month before the incident would leave him with no connection to it.

Senior Airman Adam Barrs, of the 5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, was killed in a single-car auto accident on July, 5 2007, as a passenger. The car was driven by Airman 1st Class Stephen Garrett. There is speculation that Barr’s specialty, communications and navigations systems could be relevant to the incident but his death over the July 4th holidays both predates the incident and had no direct link to it.

Additionally, the Military Times published a story stating 237 nuclear handling deficiencies in the Air Combat Command in total just since 2001. This report would also buttress the DSB’s conclusion of an overall erosion of nuclear handling procedures. Strangely enough, the actual Bent Spear incident is not included in that list. Scott Vest, a former USAF Captain and Munitions Specialist with the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot also has an interesting article on the subject here that also buttresses the DSB report.

As for the Chinese semiconductor hack story, I only found one website postulating the theory. That I would have to dismiss out of hand due to the fact that semiconductor suppliers don’t have any knowledge of the use their products have after they are sold.

In conclusion, despite all the dire warnings and postulations, I see nothing here that would indicate anything other than the DSB’s findings of an erosion of the nuclear mission due to increased conventional operations, downgrading of the nuclear mission and personnel & budgetary cutbacks that were warned about to the Air Combat Command as far back as 1992. The scope of SecDef Gates’ housecleaning and the fact that resignations and disciplinary actions went all the way to the top of the Air Force command structure are consistent with both the gravity of the incident and the desire by the DOD to put their nuclear house in order.

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