WASHINGTON — Three weeks after the Air Force began investigating the mistaken arming of a B-52 bomber with nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked for an outside inquiry led by a retired general who once commanded the strategic bomber fleet, an official said Thursday.
In the embarrassing incident, a Boeing B-52 mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30. The missiles were mounted onto pylons under the bomber’s wings, but the Air Force said there was never any danger to the public.
The mistake, revealed publicly by the Military Times newspapers, was so serious that President Bush and Gates were quickly informed and Gates has received regular updates from the Air Force on progress in its investigation.
Gates’ press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said the defense chief asked Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff, to lead an inquiry into the implications of the incident. That is in addition to the existing Air Force probe headed by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, director of air and space operations at Air Combat Command, which is responsible for all Air Force bombers and fighters.
Morrell said Welch will lead a Defense Science Board task force to determine whether the B-52 incident has wider implications for the military. “Does this incident reflect a larger problem with regard to the security and transfer of munitions?” is the question that Welch’s group will attempt to answer, Morrell said.
The Defense Science Board is a standing committee of outside experts, including retired military officers and former government officials, that advises the secretary of defense on a wide range of national security issues.
Asked why Gates felt it necessary to launch another inquiry into the matter, Morrell said it did not reflect any dissatisfaction with the way the Air Force is conducting its investigation.
“But I think he believes that in an incident of this nature, it’s important to get to the bottom of it,” Morrell said. “And he believes an outside set of eyes may be additionally helpful to, sort of, get a better sense of what went wrong and how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.”
The weapon involved in the Aug. 30 incident was the Advanced Cruise Missile, a “stealth” weapon developed in the 1980s with the ability to evade detection by Soviet radars. The Air Force said in March that it had decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile fleet in the near future.