National Opinions

A megaton mistake by our military

This editorial appeared in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times.

Sexual assault and torture grab headlines, especially when U.S. military officers are the accused perpetrators. But when it comes to protecting the American homeland — and the rest of the planet — failure to maintain control over U.S. nuclear weapons is the ultimate dereliction of duty. So it is heartening to see that the Air Force, after a six-week investigation, has decided to relieve four colonels of duty and discipline more than 65 lower-ranking personnel in connection with an August incident in which six nuclear-armed cruise missiles were inadvertently loaded onto a B-52 bomber and mistakenly flown from North Dakota to Louisiana.

The good news is that the investigation was brutally honest in detailing the number and variety of mistakes that were made and the protocols that were ignored. Truth in fact-finding ought to be routine, but bitter experience has shown that it is not. The Air Force deserves kudos for conducting an excellent initial probe. The bad news, as the mortified military brass are painfully aware, is that the investigation revealed a systemic failure in the care, command and control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most powerful in the world.

This wasn't a lapse caused by a few drunk or lazy individuals who sent a few nuclear bombs joy riding across the country in an isolated snafu. This was, in the words of Maj. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III, the assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, "an unprecedented string of procedural failures." When at least 65 military personnel fail spectacularly to do their jobs, knowing that their jobs involve the safety of nuclear weapons, when they ignore numerous protocols meant to safeguard those weapons in the age of terrorism, and when it takes 36 hours for the Air Force even to notice that six live nukes are missing from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and have been sitting at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, it must be counted a management failure as well.

And this raises the question: Where were the generals when all this was going on? Who was assigned to inspect and monitor the command-and-control procedures for nuclear weapons? Who was supposed to be supervising the four errant colonels? And who was responsible for training their subordinates, for instilling the sense of seriousness in nuclear protocols that has obviously been lost? This is not a call for the Air Force to find a token general to scapegoat. At least two further probes — a broad review by the Defense Science Board and hearings scheduled by Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces — will reveal whether any other Air Force personnel should be held accountable. More important is that the entire U.S. military realizes the importance of restoring not just command and control but a sense of military and moral seriousness to the stewardship of U.S. nuclear weapons.