WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four U.S. Air Force officers have been relieved of command after nuclear missiles were mistakenly flown between two bases in the United States, the Air Force said on Friday.
Three colonels and a lieutenant colonel were removed from their posts while about 65 Air Force members had their permission to handle nuclear weapons withdrawn as a result of the incident, which took place in late August, officials said.
“In the countless times our dedicated airmen have transferred weapons in our nation’s arsenal, nothing like this has ever occurred,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Newton, briefing reporters on an investigation into the incident.
“This was a failure to follow procedures,” he said. “Clearly, this incident is unacceptable to the people of the United States and to the United States Air Force. We owe the nation nothing less than adherence to the highest standards.”
On August 29, six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were taken out of shelters at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and loaded onto one wing of a B-52 bomber, where they remained overnight, Air Force officials said.
Six missiles not armed with nuclear warheads were loaded onto the other wing of the aircraft.
Newton said the flight line at the air base was secure while the weapons were on the aircraft but he acknowledged the security level was “not up to the standards that we would have liked” for nuclear arms.
The following day, the aircraft flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where the error was discovered, the Air Force said.
Both President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were alerted to the mistake when it was discovered and the Air Force launched an investigation.
The B-52 was meant to ferry only cruise missiles without nuclear warheads as part of a program to consolidate weapons for decommissioning, Newton said at the Pentagon.
He said a series of procedures and checks should have prevented the package of six weapons from being identified for transfer, transported to the plane and flown to Barksdale, but none of them had been followed.
But he insisted the case was an isolated incident and that the procedures for handling nuclear weapons were sound.
The U.S. military does not normally comment on the movement of nuclear arms but Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne said he had decided to make an exception.
“We would not be this upset with ourselves, nor be striving to restore confidence, if this did not involve nuclear weapons,” he said.