06/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pentagon: Over 1000 Nuclear Weapon Parts Missing?

Many people have raised the specter of nuclear WMDs being sourced from nefarious sources -- from errant former Soviet states, from N. Korea, Iran or Pakistan. It may be that to those fears must be added the threat that American nuclear weapon technology may be circulating in the black market as well.

Recently, the Air Force has faced serious lapses in nuclear weapons security. A bomber carried six nuclear bombs across the US without anyone in charge knowing about it, and nuclear nose cones were unintentionally shipped to Taiwan without anyone discovering the error for 18 months.

Recently, Defense secretary Robert Gates fired the civilian and military heads of the Air Force as a result of an investigation by Admiral Kirkland Donald into the above incidents and the general state of Nuclear weapon technology inventory security. Donald concluded that both of the above incidents had, according to the Financial Times, "'common origin' which was 'the gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight by air force leadership'."

Apparently, according to a closed, classified briefing the Pentagon made to congress, the nuclear security problem is much worse.

Yesterday, the Financial Times ran an article, by Demetri Sevastopulo headlined, "US N-weapons parts missing, Pentagon says."

On Wednesday,the senate Armed Services committee received a closed, classified briefing from the Pentagon that discussed the problems the Airforce is having managing its nuclear weapons inventory. seeking further information, I contacted the office of the majority committee chair.

A staffer for Senate Armed Services Committee majority chair, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) responded to my inquiry:

"The briefing was classified so we cannot comment on the substance of the briefing. As indicated in the hearing notice, Admiral Kirkland Donald was the briefer. He briefed his report on the nosecone shipment to Taiwan incident. The report was conducted at the request of Secretary Gates. The committee takes the security of nuclear weapons very seriously."

The Financial Times article reported, that as the result of an investigation into why missile nose cones were inappropriately shipped to Taiwan,

"According to previously undisclosed details obtained by the FT, the investigation also concluded that the air force could not account for many sensitive components previously included in its nuclear inventory.

One official said the number of missing components was more than 1,000.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at Nellis Air Force Base, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported, said "the problem has been mounting 'for at least a decade. Some say longer.'"

The FT article cited Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association think tank, in Washington D.C., as commenting on the report of the missing technology as

"'very significant and extremely troubling' because it meant the US could not establish the positive control referred to by Mr Gates.

'It raises a serious question about where else these unaccounted for warhead related parts may have gone,' said Mr Kimball. "I would not be surprised if the recent Taiwan incident is not the only one.'"

I spoke to Mr. Kimball at length about the report, which he commented on:

The cause of these incidents goes back to the lax culture that has developed within certain parts of the Air Force about the handling of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons related components. What's particularly disturbing to me this morning... (after learning of the Financial Times report) is that the Pentagon's mistaken shipment of the fuses to Taiwan fairly recently may not be the only example of sensitive warhead or missile related parts or components winding up in the wrong place.

The fact that the pentagon does not have positive control, that is, full accounting of the whereabouts of these items, I think it's deeply disturbing because it doesn't necessarily mean that these parts are in the wrong hands, but at the very least suggests that the system as it has been run for the last several years makes that a possibility. It also makes it possible for someone inside the Air Force who is handling these components to potentially manipulate the system for personal gain. People in the Air Force are good people but they are also human beings. The system of accounting is clearly broken and it has got to be fixed. Gates is to be commended for holding those at the top responsible, but much more is going to have to be done to address the severe shortcomings.

The other thing I should point out is that no matter hard the Air Force tries or how good the Air Force is, when you have a nuclear weapons arsenal that consists of about 10,000 nuclear warheads, and tens of thousands of more parts related to these warheads and their delivery systems, there is an inherent risk that they are going to be lost or missing and potentially in the wrong place. We need to recognize that there is always going to be an inherent risk of this sort of thing happening so long as we have this bloated nuclear weapons arsenal that we have today twenty years after the cold war ended.

I mentioned Mullen's comment on culture of over ten years and Kimball responded,

This doesn't happen overnight. Part of the problem is that nuclear weapons are, from a military and professional standpoint, not that attractive or useful or career enhancing. In other words, today's miltary is not focused on being prepared to fight an all out nuclear war with the Soviets.

The nuclear weapons that are stored and deployed in airforce bases, depots and in missile silos in various parts of the country are the unexciting part of the military today and that reality, I believe, has led the airforce to neglect some of the essential duties in properly accounting for and handling the infrastructure that's related to this part of our arsenal, the most deadly part of our arsenal.

I replied, "So, what you're basically saying is, for the military, Nuclear weapons are old technology that don't give them the juice, the buzz, the excitement that they get from the new technology-- the drones, what have you?" Kimball replied,

"or armored personal carriers and attack helicopters. That's what's being used today. If you are a high ranking senior officer and you are looking at how to defend the United States and fight a war, nuclear weapons are pretty much the furthest thing from your mind. These weapons are pretty much unusable. They are a weapon of mass destruction. You can't these on any of the battlefields that the United states is fighting on today. They are just wholly inappropriate for any mission today. Their only purpose is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by some other country. ....Nuclear weapons are out of style and they are not career enhancers if you have something to do with them in the military today. That's part of the underlying reason the lax culture of accounting and safety have crept into some elements.

Most of the people, I should add, dealing with this part of the arsenal are extremely serious and professional and they do their job, but obviously we have holes and gaps in the human and the institutions that surround these weapons and their related parts.

I interjected, "You mentioned earlier that there's a risk of theft or selling parts..." He replied,

I"m just raising the question, which is, if the pentagon cannot account for thousands of sensitive items related to nuclear weapons delivery systems or the weapons themselves, that raises to me the question about whether someone inside the pentagon system of accounting could manipulate the system for personal gain. I"m not saying it has happened, but if the Air Force does not know where these parts are, I think the problem is pretty obvious.

Someone may have changed the label, sent a box with sensitive items somewhere else. That's a theoretical possibility. And that's another reason why this is extremely troubling to me.

I asked, "Is there any way we could tell? I fear that they would not disclose this if it happened."

I don't think they would disclose it if it happened. I don't think they wanted Demitri Sevastopoulos Financial Times report revealing that there are additional parts that are not accounted for.

The issue of how nuclear weapons are handled is a very tightly held issue and there's not a lot of public access or scrutiny... We'll be encouraging Capitol Hill to take another look at the situation in light of the fact that the Taiwan incidents may not be only incidents. There are potentially thousands of other parts that are not accounted for. So, they have.

I think what's important to ask is, what actual steps are the pentagon taking, systematically, to address the problems, beyond removing key senior leaders of the Air Force. That's the question the pentagon needs to be forthcoming about in order to restore public confidence and to be sure that they are doing the things that need to be done."

Has the Air Force lost over a thousand nuclear weapons parts? I asked the Pentagon to comment on the Financial Times article's report of missing equipment.

Bryan Whitman, a Senior Pentagon Spokesman, replied to my request for comment on the Financial Times article,

"I'm not going to comment of the specifics of a classified report.

That said, during the life-cycle of any weapons program decisions are made with respect to how to manage, control, inventory, destroy and demilitarize components. Record-keeping of component parts was identified as a weakness.

There is a difference between missing items and not having a full and complete auditable paper trail for every component.

As we said at the time the review was completed, the investigation did not find anything that would affect the health and safety of the public or our men and women in uniform or call into question the safety, security and reliability of our nuclear arsenal.

What's the difference between "missing" and "not having a full and complete auditable trail?" That appears to be the hair the Pentagon chooses to split. We've seen the same kind of approach to the billions in dollars in Iraq reconstruction funds that are known to be missing. The "lack of a full and complete auditable trail" for missing billions adds up to a warm fuzzy lining to someone's pockets.

The "lack of a full and complete auditable trail" for missing nuclear weapons parts could mean terrorists getting their hands on American Nuclear weapons technology. Just imagine. They source raw materials from N. Korea, missile technology from Pakistan and a nose cone trigger from a rogue supply clerk who doctors some records, as Daryl Kimball hypothesizes. It makes you really think about the job our military is doing protecting us from terrorists. The late Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote what has become a famous caption, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

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