Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)

Chapter 9. An $8 Trillion Fungus Among Us

SAY YOU’RE A HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR IN 2007. WE’RE FOUR YEARS into Iraq, and six years into Afghanistan. If you’re feeling a call to patriotic duty, a sense of adventure, thinking about the training opportunities offered by a career in the US Armed Forces, where do you tell that recruiter that you’d like to end up? Probably not in a missile silo in Minot, North Dakota. In the post-9/11 era, who’d want the job of sitting through the nuclear winter on the high plains, running maintenance on the thirty-five B-52s, guarding the “silos” that housed 150 giant and largely untested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), babysitting the hundreds of smaller nuclear warheads stored in sod-topped bunkers like canned fruit shelved in a tornado shelter? The munitions maintenance team and the weapons handlers and the tow crews in Minot could call those bunkers “igloos,” but giving stuff funny names didn’t make life there any more fun.

“Our younger airmen, once they’ve reached that decision point, if they have been stationed in one of our northern bases where the environment’s a little bit tougher, they tend to leave the service,” an Air Force general told the Senate. Those who didn’t leave the service didn’t stick around the tending-the-nukes life for long. In 2007, an Airman assigned to a nuclear bomber wing could look around and note that more than eight in ten members of her wing’s security force were rookies. One senior officer in the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise admitted that standing alert duty in missile silos is not considered “deployed,” and “if you are not a ‘deployer,’ you do not get promoted.”

The Air Force pleaded for more missileers, but “deployments in support of regional conventional operations [i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan] decrease manpower available to the nuclear mission.” But even without Iraq and Afghanistan siphoning off military talent, would anyone expect that ambitious young airmen would be clamoring for silo duty?

“We need a nuclear career field,” concluded a Pentagon blue-ribbon task force on the nation’s nuclear mission in 2008. Sixty years into America’s nuclear superpower age, sixty years as the only nation to have ever used a nuclear weapon against an enemy in wartime, sixty years of hair-trigger nuclear alert, and we don’t have a nuclear career field? We used to have one, but it’s been eclipsed by changing times, changing wars.

That Pentagon report noted that “many Airmen were skeptical of hearing repeated pronouncements that the nuclear mission is ‘number one’ … No one explains to junior Air Force personnel why ICBMs are important.” But no matter what they might figure out to say about ICBMs being important, the Air Force’s actions spoke louder. Ask the staff sergeant who got written up for failing a Storage Access and Missile Safe Status Check inspection but still retained his position as a nuclear weapons handler. Status check? The airmen handling weapons capable of unleashing Armageddon were stuck on low.

So was the whole nuclear enterprise. It wasn’t just the personnel; it was the aging hardware, too. Consider page thirteen of a recently declassified 2007 report on the care and feeding of our nation’s nuclear weapons at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana:

RECOMMENDED IMPROVEMENT AREAS:

        •  Numerous air launched cruise missiles had fungus on leading edge of wings

        •  Forward missile antenna sealant delaminated

        •  Corrosion on numerous H1388 storage and shipping containers

While our nuclear-armed cruise missiles were growing leading-edge wing fungus in the subtropical moisture of Louisiana, other US military flying hardware was having rather the opposite problem: in the words of Defense Industry Daily, they “were about to fly their wings off—and not just as a figure of speech.” In 2006, the Air Force embarked on an emergency (and expensive, at $7 million a pop) upgrade of the nation’s fleet of C-130 aircraft. After heavy service moving cargo and flying combat missions as retrofitted gunships, the huge planes’ wing-boxes were failing. Wing-boxes are what keep the wings attached to the fuselage.

So take your pick of your maintenance priorities, Taxpayer: wings falling off enormous gunships in the Middle East and central Asia from constant use in the longest simultaneous land wars in US history, or sedentary nuclear missiles in Shreveport growing fungus. At least we can easily tally the twenty-first-century benefits where the C-130s were concerned; those airplanes have moved a bucketload of troops—along with “beans, boots, Band-Aids, and bullets”—to the various war zones we’ve kept humming since 2001. Operationally speaking, that workhorse fleet of no-frills, have-a-seat-on-your-helmet airplanes has been tremendously effective and cost-efficient.

The nuclear thing is harder to figure.

The United States, according to a 1998 study by the Brookings Institution, spent nearly eight trillion in today’s dollars on nukes in the last half of the twentieth century, which represents something like a third of our total military spending in the Cold War. Just the nuke budget was more than that half-century’s federal spending on Medicare, education, social services, disaster relief, scientific research (of the non-nuclear stripe), environmental protection, food safety inspectors, highway maintenance, cops, prosecutors, judges, and prisons … combined. The only programs that got more taxpayer dollars were Social Security and non-nuclear defense spending.

What do we have to show for that steady, decades-long mushroom cloud of a spending spree? Well, congratulations: we’ve got ourselves a humongous nuclear weaponry complex. Still, today. Yes, the Nevada Test Site is now a museum, and the FBI converted J. Edgar Hoover’s fallout shelter into a Silence of the Lambs–style psychological-profiling unit, but as atomic-kitschy as it all seems, the bottom line is this: twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a twenty-first-century year, we’ve still got thousands of nuclear missiles armed, manned, and ready to go, pointed at the Soviet Union. Er … Russia. Whatever. At the places that still have thousands of live nuclear weapons pointed at us.

Warheads, and the missiles that carry them, and all the nuts and bolts that support them from shelter to bomber wing and back again have been on the shelf for way too long. The nukes and their auxiliary equipment were generally designed to have a life span of about ten to twenty years. Constant manufacturing and modernization were the assumptions back in the glory days, especially with Team B’s armchair instigators kicking up all that magic fear dust. But by the start of the Barack Obama presidency, some of that hardware had been in service for forty or even fifty years.

Bad enough that missiles were growing wing fungus and storage containers were rusting through, but at least those problems were mostly solvable with Lysol and Rustoleum. For the more serious nuclear maintenance issues, we had by then started shoveling money into something called the Stockpile Life Extension Program, which—even if you avoid the temptation to call it SchLEP—is still essentially a program of artificial hips, pacemakers, and penile implants for aging nukes. How’d you like to be responsible for operating on a half-century-old nuclear bomb?

These were fixes that required real, hard-won technical nuclear expertise—expertise we unfortunately also seemed to be aging out of. Fuzes, for example, were failing, and there was nobody around who could fix them: “Initial attempts to refurbish Mk21 fuzes were unsuccessful,” admitted an Air Force general, “in large part due to their level of sophistication and complexity.” The fuze that previous generations of American engineers had invented to trigger a nuclear explosion (or to prevent one) were apparently too complicated for today’s generation of American engineers. The old guys, who had designed and understood this stuff, had died off, and no one thought to have them pass on what they knew while they still could.

Then there was the W76 problem. W76s were nuclear bombs based mostly on the Navy’s Trident submarines. By refurbishing them, we thought we might get another twenty or thirty years out of them before they needed replacing. The problem with refurbishing the W76s—with taking them apart, gussying them up, and putting them back together—is that we had forgotten how to make these things anymore. One part of the bomb had the code name “Fogbank.” Fogbank’s job was to ensure that the hydrogen in the bomb reached a high enough energy level to explode on cue. But no one could remember how to make Fogbank. It was apparently dependent on some rare and highly classified X-Men-like material conjured by US scientists and engineers in the 1970s, but no one today remembers the exact formula for making it. Very embarrassing.

The Department of Energy was not going to take this lying down; they promised the Navy, “We did it before, so we can do it again.” I like that can-do spirit! But sadly, no. It took more than a year just to rebuild the long-dismantled Fogbank manufacturing plant at the Oak Ridge nuclear lab, and from there, while a bunch of aging W76 warheads lay opened up like patients on an operating table, government scientists and engineers tried to whip up new life-extending batches of Fogbank. But even after years of trying, even after the Fogbank production program went to “Code Blue” high priority, the technicians were never able to reproduce a single cauldron of Fogbank possessed of its former potency. The Department of Energy, according to an official government report, “had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency.” The experts were gone. And nobody had bothered to write anything down!

Maybe this should have been a sign. When all the scientists and engineers are dead, or senile, or at least just fishing, and the know-how is gone with them, isn’t it fair to say that a destroy-the-world-thousands-of-times-over nuclear weapons program has run its course?

It’s not worth (at least here) querying the sanity of how we got all these nukes in the first place. There was a logic to it. In the Cold War, with the Soviet Union pointing Armageddon-making bombs in our direction, we answered in kind. The deterrent force of our nukes—you move to wipe us out, you’re going down with us—was rational, although kind of bizarre. The perfectly acronymed doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) required that we have whatever the Russians had, plus better, plus one. And the same for them toward us. Last superpower with a bullet in the chamber wins. At one remarkable moment in the completely MAD Atomic Age of the 1960s we possessed more than 31,000 armed nuclear warheads, scattered around the globe aboard submarines, in underground missile silos, or strapped on the underside of bomber wings. And most of the warheads in this sea-land-air triad were a simple key-turn away from launch. We had to be ready to fire those suckers in a hurry.

If your desire is to discourage (in the biggest way possible) imminent thermonuclear war with the Soviets, MAD at least theoretically justified keeping that many missiles ready to fly on the shortest possible notice. Once the Soviet Union dissolved, though, what was the remaining justification for our keeping an arsenal of that size on hair-trigger alert?

How about the fact that it is not a simple thing to walk away from a sixty-year, eight-trillion-dollar investment? Eight-trillion-dollar habits die hard. In 2005, Gen. Lance Lord, described as a “man with missile in his DNA,” said in a speech to a Washington think tank, “As the wing commander at F. E. Warren, routinely I was asked, ‘How does winning the Cold War change your mission?’ ” His answer: “It doesn’t.” Institutions have inertia. When the original justification for a huge investment goes away, the huge investment finds another reason to live. It’s not just the military; it’s true of pretty much all organizations. The more money and work and time it takes to build something, the more power it accrues, and the more effort it takes to make it go away.

But in the case of the nuclear arms race, what built it wasn’t just money (tons of money), work, and time, it was also a grab-you-by-the-throat existential urgency. To convince ourselves we needed a nationwide web of hair-trigger-alert nuclear weapons capable of destroying the earth thousands of times over, we had to commit ourselves to a beautifully apocalyptic theory of how we would not just possess but also use these weapons. We would push the button, maybe even hundreds of times. We’d do it because we’d need to—because an enemy was in the act of doing the same or worse to us.

After the Cold War, without the realistic threat of a massive, multistrike nuclear assault by the USSR, our bristling-with-nukes posture made no sense. If we wanted to keep this huge web of nukes in place, we needed a post-Soviet scenario for how and why we’d ever want to push the button, maybe even hundreds of times.

Cue the American spirit of invention. In that same no-change-in-my-mission speech in 2005, General Lord ventured a new idea for why his Wyoming missileers should keep going to work every day tending their ICBMs: “The triad no longer means ICBMs, bombers, and submarines. The new triad consists of offensive strike, defensive capabilities, and highlights the revitalization of the defense infrastructure to meet emerging threats.” When military planners start talking about new paradigms and using nukes for offensive strikes, don’t look for the budget requests to go down.

If we’re in the business of thinking up constructive new uses for all these nukes, let’s think big. After all, it’s not just us and the USSR anymore. The UK, France, China, Pakistan, and India have nukes too. Oh, and Israel, but that’s supposed to be a secret. Apartheid-era South Africa had them—yikes—but decided to get rid of them, as did the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Brazil and Argentina could very well have had them, but they agreed to be part of a nuclear-weapons-free Latin America instead.

Then there are the wannabes. On October 9, 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear device. The CIA director reportedly called the test a failure, but it sure didn’t feel like a failure internationally. Kim Jong Il, then the “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, wanted to join the most depressing club ever—the so-called nuclear club—and the prospect of his getting even close to that achievement was a real kick in the teeth. It was one thing to marvel at state-run news reports that Kim Jong Il hit holes-in-one every time he golfed and that his birth was heralded by a double rainbow and a new star in the sky; it was another to imagine that same guy having the power to level part of the planet at the touch of a button.

But as the world recoiled in collective horror at the idea of a nuclear-armed weirdo Dear Leader, the response of American conservatives to the North Korean nuclear test revealed the fact that mainstream Washington discussion about nukes had become pretty weird too. A week and a half after the North Korean nuclear test, conservative Charles Krauthammer argued in the Washington Post that the best response would be for the United States to persuade Japan to develop nukes as well.

Japan. Nukes. Japan?! Nukes?!

Krauthammer argued that if Japan were to say it was developing nuclear weapons in response to North Korea having them, China would so dislike that idea that the Chinese would force North Korea back in the box. Of course, back in reality, there was also the possibility that the Chinese would respond to the threat of a nuclear-armed Japan not by disarming their ally, North Korea, but by up-arming it. And why would they stop at North Korea—how about Burma? Indonesia? East Timor? Kazakhstan used to have nukes under the USSR—maybe they’d like them again?

On the other hand, if you buy the principle that adding nuclear capability to “good” countries somehow reduces the threat of nukes in “bad” countries, then why stop at Japan? Why not South Korea, too? Why not Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam? Since Burma has such a disastrously bad government, maybe the United States should insist that every country that borders Burma get nuclear weapons just to be on the safe side. If so, let’s all welcome Bangladesh and Laos to the atomic age. Hey, Somalia sucks too—how about nukes for our ally Kenya? Or Djibouti? Does Djibouti have enough room for a fleet of nuclear-armed B-52 Stratofortresses?

Something’s gone haywire in our politics if nonproliferation is still nominally the policy of the United States of America but a proposal like Krauthammer’s isn’t cause for a national spit-take. And it wasn’t. “Maybe Japan should give it more thought,” mused an editorialist in the Oklahoman while admitting, “understandably, that’s a touchy subject in Japan.”

Meanwhile, lurking in the background as we conjure up new excuses to spread nukes around the world, is the unattractive aging process of our own stack of nuclear weapons.

“It is becoming apparent that any number of serious problems may be waiting around the corner,” the commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center said in 2011. Then he quoted one of his predecessors: “Nuclear weapons, even when sitting on a shelf, are chemistry experiments. They are constantly changing from chemical reactions inside of them.” The military knows the potential of this nuclear woodpile they’re responsible for, not just its deliberate capacity as weaponry but its potential to be a catastrophic mess, too. So one must assume there are a lot of precautions and fail-safes and quintuple-checks and whatnot. One must assume that everyone working around these weapons takes extra-special precautions to make sure nothing ever goes wrong. The history of the program, one would think, would bear that out. Nope.

In 1980, stray fuel vapors in an ICBM silo set off an explosion that blew off the 740-ton steel-and-concrete door covering the missile. The nuclear warhead was thrown more than six hundred feet toward the Ozarks. One airman was killed and twenty-one were injured. The warhead itself did not explode (praise be) or break apart and leak plutonium all over Damascus, Arkansas. So we got lucky there. The cause of that explosion was an Air Force maintenance worker who accidentally dropped a socket wrench into the darkness of the silo. The socket wrench punched a hole in the missile’s fuel tank, which loosed the combustible vapors. A socket wrench did all that.

For much more of our nation’s nuclear history than you’d think, we designed our nuclear systems in a way that invited peril. Through almost all of the 1960s, it was someone’s genius idea that American bombers armed with live nuclear weapons should be in the air at all times, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The idea was that if the Soviet Union decided to annihilate the United States and succeeded in doing so, these poor pilots—somewhere over the earth—would lose radio contact with home, figure out that their country was a cinder, and, for the sake of the memory of what used to be the United States of America, make a beeline for anything Russian and drop their bombs. It would be one last “America from beyond the grave” nuclear attack on the Soviet bastards. This wasn’t some cockamamie idea for a science-fiction novel or a Dr. Strangelove sequel; it was an approved strategy, and the bombers really did fly those missions for years.

B-52 Stratofortresses and their siblings, the B-52H high-altitude Stratofortresses, which were then in the healthful blush of youth, were supposed to be up there flying around the clock. Remember, this was an era when even television stood down for six or eight hours a night. Not our bombers. The Strategic Air Command kept a dozen or more of its bombers in the air at all times. A third of the SAC fleet was fully weaponized and ready for takeoff at a moment’s notice at all times. And not only would there be a dozen or so of these 160-foot-long, 185,000-pound behemoths in the air at any given moment, but each individual plane would be flying for twenty-four hours straight, fully loaded with live nuclear weapons, fully combat-ready. They called the operation “Chrome Dome.” They also called these flights “training missions,” on the theory that this would somehow mitigate public or international outcry if something went wrong.

Of course, there was no way those B-52s could stay aloft for twenty-four hours at a stretch, given the way they devoured fuel. So in addition to being armed with multiple ready-to-release nuclear bombs, flying twenty-four-hour missions, they also had to refuel in midair, sometimes twice a day, every single day, 365 days a year.

What could possibly go wrong?

On January 17, 1966, a B-52 armed with four live hydrogen bombs smashed into a KC-135 tanker during a midair refueling. Conveniently enough, the way the flight patterns worked for these Chrome Dome missions, these two planes were 29,000 feet over a coastal region of Andalusian Spain while this refueling was taking place. (The tanker had taken off from an American air base in Spain called—I kid you not—Morón.) When the bomber came down, four of the live nuclear bombs came down along with it. One of them landed in a tomato field and did not blow up. One of them dropped into the Mediterranean and was found after much effort, two and a half months later, 2,600 feet down. They used a submarine.

The other two nuclear bombs blew up in the Spanish countryside. There obviously was not a nuclear blast in Spain in 1966, but these two nuclear bombs did explode. They were essentially massive dirty bombs. The conventional explosives that form part of the fuze in these nukes blew the bombs apart and scattered radioactive particles and bomb fragments all over Palomares, Spain. Whoopsie!

The United States arranged for 1,400 tons of radioactive Spanish earth to be removed from Spain. They shipped it to lucky, lucky Aiken, South Carolina, and kept it all as quiet as they could. And forty years later, while the United States continued to subsidize the Palomareans in their trips to Madrid for annual health checkups, and the local farmers continued to complain about depressed tomato and watermelon sales in the decades since the contamination, the incident was largely forgotten. Palomares, Spain, had become a kind of a tourist area. In 2004, they were starting the digging on a luxury condo-and-golf-course development and discovered the land there was still, as Gen. Curtis LeMay used to say, “a little bit hot.” So the Spanish government confiscated all the radioactive land it could find. And after a heartfelt request from the Spanish government, the United States agreed to pay $2 million to facilitate the removal of more of Spain’s accidentally overheated land.

A one-off, right?

Wrong. Just before the Palomares accident, another American plane carrying a nuclear weapon was on board an aircraft carrier called the USS Ticonderoga. Now, we were never supposed to have nuclear weapons anywhere near the Vietnam conflict, but … we did. And the Ticonderoga was apparently sailing its nuclear-armed way from Vietnam, where we weren’t supposed to have nuclear weapons, to Japan, where we really, really, really were not supposed to have nuclear weapons for obvious historical and political reasons. And then something very bad happened. One of these fighter jets, armed with a nuclear bomb, had been hoisted up on the elevator from the lower deck when it slid right off the elevator platform, off the flight deck, and into the sea, where it sank to a depth of more than three miles—pilot, plane, nuclear bomb, and all. And it’s still down there. Whoopsie!

A few years after the sliding-off-the-aircraft-carrier thing and the midair crash over Palomares, in 1968 it happened again: another B-52 on one of these Chrome Dome always-have-the-nukes-in-the-air missions crashed in Greenland, near an Air Force base there called Thule (thoo-lee). The B-52, again with four nuclear bombs on board, suffered a fire in the cockpit, and the pilots attempted to bring down the plane at an airstrip in Thule. They missed. The B-52 crash-landed on the ice and the nuclear bombs on board exploded: again, not nuclear explosions but massive dirty-bomb explosions that scattered highly radioactive particles everywhere. The people who saw it happen say that “the ice burned black.” Whoopsie!

Local Greenlanders were called out to help with the cleanup. The Air Force personnel on the decontamination job had lots of special protective gear. The Danes … not so much. Aided by this underdressed Danish “civilian augmentation,” the Air Force collected 500 million gallons of radioactive ice, and you don’t want to know about the cancer rates of that Danish cleanup crew.

The Pentagon said forty years ago that all four nuclear bombs exploded in that Greenland crash and were subsequently destroyed, which was almost true. But not quite. Using recently declassified documents and film, the BBC reported in 2008 that three bombs exploded, but the fourth was never found. The fourth bomb is thought to have melted through the sea ice and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Our military looked for it for a long time but figured that if they couldn’t find it, then no bad guys could either. Maybe after a few more decades of global ice melt, its location will reveal itself to us.

There’s also a large plutonium-packed bomb still stuck in a swampy field in Faro, North Carolina. In 1961 a busted fuel line caused a fire and then an explosion in a fully loaded nuclear B-52 during a predawn “training flight,” causing the plane’s right wing to more or less fall off, making it hard to fly. The crew managed to bail out before the explosion, and then the plane’s nukes separated from the plane in the general breakup of the falling aircraft. What happened to those two bombs keeps me up at night sometimes. One of the bombs had a parachute on it, and that one had a soft landing—or as soft a landing as a twelve-foot-long, five-ton missile can have. Strategic Air Command found it just off Shackleford Road, its nose burrowed eighteen inches into the ground, its parachute tangled in a tree overhead, its frangible bomb casing deformed but largely intact. That bomb, the bomb by the tree, had six fuzes on it designed to prevent an accidental full nuclear detonation. The first five of the six fuzes had failed. The last one held.

The second hydrogen bomb on board that plane did not have the benefit of an open parachute. When it hit a marshy field in Faro, it was traveling at more than seven hundred miles per hour, by knowledgeable estimate, and buried itself more than twenty feet deep in the swamp. A woman living nearby remembered the impact “lit up the sky like daylight.” Whoopsie!

A farmer named C. T. Davis owned that field, and he said that when the military came out to look for the lost bomb—heading straight for the right spot, thanks to an enormous crater—they said they were looking for an ejection seat that they had lost. A very valuable ejection seat. But the field was so muddy, so quick-sandy, that they started to lose their excavating equipment into the crater before they could get the bomb out of the hole. So they decided to just leave it there, and got an easement from the Davis family that said nobody could ever dig deeper than five feet on that piece of land. If you’re ever in the neighborhood and want to play with your metal detector, you can find the exact spot on Google Earth. It’s just immediately west of Big Daddy’s Road.

Overall, the United States admits to having lost track of eleven nuclear bombs over the years. I don’t know about other countries, but that’s what we admit to. And we’re regarded as top-drawer, safety-wise. We’re known to go the extra mile, like in 1984, when a computer malfunction nearly triggered the launch of a Minuteman III ICBM, and some resourceful missileer parked an armored car on top of the silo in a heroic effort to prevent the accidental opening salvo of World War III. These things all happened back in the good old days, when we were really minding the store.

Here’s what happened more recently, since our awesome nuclear responsibilities slipped a bit from the forefront of our national consciousness: On August 29, 2007, at around 8:20 a.m., a weapons-handling team entered one of those Minot igloos (#1857, to be precise) to retrieve the first of two pylons, each with six twenty-one-foot-long cruise missiles attached. This had become a familiar drill in the previous few months, ever since the secretary of defense had ordered four hundred of these aging missiles off-line. The Minot team had already successfully shipped about half of them to be mothballed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The crewmembers’ familiarity with the task may have been why they didn’t much bother with the safety checklist.

The first pylon in question, GZ377, had two letter-sized “TacFerry” signs attached to it, signaling that it had been prepped for the flight, or tactical ferry, to Barksdale. That meant that the silver nuclear warheads had been removed and replaced with harmless dummy weights. Nobody on the weapons crew followed the mandated procedure of shining a flashlight into a postage-stamp-sized, diamond-shaped window on the missile to verify that no nukes were on board. Nor did the tow-rig driver shine his light into that little window—as his Technical Order required him to—before hooking the pylon to his trailer. The driver later said he was “under the impression that this package for sure was TacFerry.” For sure.

The second missile pylon on the schedule sheet, GZ203, was stored just down the way in igloo 1854. The handlers were in and out of igloo 1854 in twenty-two minutes, not enough time to do the most cursory of checks. The junior member of the team was apparently told not to bother with the whole flashlight thing—not that he really knew what that meant, because he was new on the job and had never performed any such check. The second tow driver, as far as anyone could see, also failed to check the little window for signs of nuclear warheads aboard. In fact, one member of the team said he did not see anyone even carrying a flashlight that day, much less putting one to use.

Oh, and one more thing: the second pylon displayed no TacFerry signs, but this did not raise any red flags for the team. Nobody called a higher-ranking officer to ask why GZ203 lacked a TacFerry placard or checked the computer database to verify the status of the pylon. So nobody on the team got the information that a few weeks earlier an officer at Minot had made a switch and ordered an older pylon prepped for shipment instead. She put it on the official schedule. Problem was, nobody ever checked the updated official schedule. So the prepped pylon with its dummy warheads sat undisturbed in its igloo that morning, while the tow driver carrying the unplacarded GZ203 pulled onto Bomber Boulevard, completely unaware that he was hauling six real operational nukes.

In the eight hours it took to attach the two pylons to a forty-five-year-old B-52H Stratofortress, no member of the loading crew noticed the warheads aboard, or the fact that one of the pylons was not marked for shipment. The six nuclear bombs strapped to the Stratofortress then sat on the runway unguarded except for a chain-link fence from five o’clock that afternoon until early the next morning, when an aircrew from the 2nd Bomb Wing out of Barksdale arrived to prep for flight. Happily, there was a member of the flight crew, the instructor radar navigator, whose job it was to check and see what exactly his aircraft was carrying before the bomber could take off.

But the navigator had apparently been infected with the general feeling about this mission of decommissioning old missiles; as one of his fellow airmen put it, “We’re only ferrying carcasses from Point A to Point B.” Others told investigators, without a hint of shame, that they weren’t sure that verifying meant, like, actually physically checking something. And so it was that “the Instructor Radar Navigator only did a ‘spot check’ on one missile, and only on the right pylon loaded with nuclear-inert payloads,” according to the report of an after-incident investigation. “If the IRN had accomplished a full and complete weapons preflight, the IRN should have discovered the nuclear warheads.” He did not.

The bomber, named, interestingly, Doom 99, departed North Dakota on schedule on the morning of August 30, 2007. “The takeoff from Minot,” noted the after-incident report, “was uneventful.” The flight itself was notable: it was the first time in forty years a nuclear-armed bomber had traversed US airspace without clearance. Six nuclear warheads—each one capable of Hiroshima-size damage times ten—were unwittingly flown 1,400 miles, from up around the US–Canadian border to within a few hundred miles of the Gulf of Mexico, within plutonium-spittin’ distance of Sioux Falls and Sioux City and Omaha and Kansas City and Tulsa. The instructor pilot on Doom 99 was not qualified for a nuclear mission. In fact, she later told investigators, she had never physically touched a nuclear weapon.

Happily, the nukes did get back to land without incident. They then sat unguarded on the runway at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for another nine hours before the ground crew there discovered that its command had accidentally acquired six new nuclear warheads, and they decided they’d better get them in a safe place, under guard. All told, six nuclear warheads were misplaced for a day and a half.

Here was the good news, according to the testimony of Air Force generals at the Senate Armed Services Committee on the occasion of presenting findings from the blue-ribbon review of the incident: “During the incident there was never any unsafe condition, and the incident was promptly reported to our national leadership including the Secretary of Defense and the President. These weapons were secure and always in the hands of America’s Airmen.”

“General,” the chairman of that Senate committee responded, “I’m a little taken aback by your statement that warheads were—there was never a safety issue and they were always under the control of American pilots. Did the pilots know they had nuclear weapons on board?”

“Sir, they did not.”

“So when you say they were under the control of the pilots, not knowing that you have nuclear weapons on board makes a difference, doesn’t it?”

“Yes sir, it does. The intent behind that statement is to make it clear that they never migrated off the aircraft anywhere else.”

Migrated?

As for whether or not an accident involving Doom 99 could have occasioned a spread of plutonium from the warheads, one of the generals at the hearing was forced to plead ignorance. “I’m a logistician, not a technician. But knowing the knowledge of how a system is developed, and that’s part of the reliability of the system, is that there is no inadvertent detonation of the system.”

“I’m not talking about detonation,” the chairman said. “I’m talking about could the plutonium be released inadvertently if this weapon were smashed into the ground from fifteen thousand feet.”

“That piece,” said the general, “I would not know.”

It was left to the senator to remind the Air Force that the United States was still cleaning up pieces of Spain forty years after the Palomares accident.

One of the first things the Air Force did in the aftermath of the Minot-to-Barksdale debacle was to institute no-warning inspections, and the first one they ran was on the 2nd Bomb Wing. Thirty-one inspectors (including six civilian augmentees) were detailed to assess the Barksdale nuclear team, and they spent ten months’ worth of man-days doing it. (That was the assessment that turned up the wing fungus.) Barksdale’s first inspector-assigned task was to stick a pylon full of cruise missiles onto a Stratofortress bomber and ready the bomber for a combat mission. The first try failed because the $450,000 bomb hoists kept malfunctioning and the electrical generators crapped out three times. After fourteen hours and two separate “mating/demating” operations, the loading crew decided to give up and start from scratch. The second try was delayed when the loading team parked the weapons bay over uneven pavement and the bomb hoist could not gain proper purchase, and then delayed again when the bomb hoist “boogie wheel” failed. The second mating attempt was aborted after fifteen hours. On the fourth attempt—after only a minor lift-arm malfunction—the Barksdale technicians managed to generate a combat-ready mission.

The 2nd Bomb Wing received a rating of Excellent from the inspectors in the following areas:

        •  Weapons Maintenance Technical Operations

        •  Storage and Maintenance Facilities

        •  Motor Vehicle Operations

        •  Safety

They had to settle for a Satisfactory in Loading and Mating. The inspectors did give extra-credit points to the loading and mating team for gamely fighting through the failure of six weapons load trailers, five power generators, a power-controller-unit trailer malfunction, and a range of unfortunate tire-pressure issues. “The weapons loading community overcame numerous equipment malfunctions,” the inspectors reported. They also commented favorably on the loading community’s “strong two-person concept adherence,” its “cohesive squadron teamwork,” and its “highly effective communication.” The inspectors did ding the loading and mating team for not prepositioning chocks to keep the loading trailers from accidentally bashing into the bomber, and suggested that they get some foam cutouts in the weapons expediter truck to keep the enabling switches and data cartridge safe during transport. But they gave Team Barksdale a thumbs-up for successfully preparing one bombing run … after three failed attempts … at somewhere past the thirty-hour mark.

“It’s very, very difficult to believe they could receive a passing grade on any kind of inspection when they were unable to generate a single successful nuclear sortie until the fourth attempt,” one weapons expert told the pseudonymous blogger (and former airman) “Nate Hale,” after reading the report that Hale had jimmied free from the Pentagon through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Hale quoted a second retired Air Force weaponeer, who was more to the point: “Tell me this is a joke.”

Still and all, the Air Force and the Pentagon decided the whole Minot-to-Barksdale mishap could be a lemons-into-lemonade moment. Apparently we needed some renewed attention to our nuclear-handling skills—we just hadn’t known it. That seemed all the more true when, a few months later, we discovered that we had erroneously shipped to Taiwan four nose-cone fuzes designed to trigger nuclear explosions in lieu of the helicopter battery packs Taiwan had requested, and that it had taken a year and a half to discover the accidental switcheroo. So the Air Force and the Pentagon embarked on some serious soul-searching, which took the form of a mess of incident investigations and blue-ribbon reviews and task-force studies to see how our atomic hair trigger was faring in the twenty-first century.

When all the investigations and reviews and task-force studies were completed, the consensus was clear: they all found erosion and degradation and a general web of sloth and anxiety within our nation’s nuclear mission. The root cause? Lack of self-esteem. The men and women handling the nukes were suffering a debilitating lack of pride. Their promotion rates, it was noted, were well behind the service average. We had to remind them in big ways and small that they were important to us, that the “pursuit of the nuclear zero-defect culture” and “generating a culture of nuclear excellence” wasn’t just hot air. What the program needed was resources: better pay, new layers of high-level managers dedicated to the nuclear mission, upgraded computer systems for tracking all the nuclear nuts and bolts, a commitment to more (and more serious) nuclear-training exercises, and of course, you know, a bigger program to upgrade and modernize the hardware. Money! “Definitely,” the logistician Air Force general told the Senate’s key nuclear oversight committee, “a re-look at recapitalizing that.”

Do I hear nine trillion?

Even though there’s been a lot of blue-ribbon hand-wringing about how best to sustain and rejuvenate our big, leaky, can’t-quite-keep-track-of-our-warheads nuclear-bomb infrastructure, our worries about it haven’t caused us to re-ask the big question of why we still have it. Given the manifest difficulties of maintaining our apocalyptic nuclear stockpile, how many nuclear bombs does the United States need to complete every conceivable military mission in which we’d use them?

An attack with one of the nuclear weapons we’ve got now would cause an explosion about ten times the size of the one at Hiroshima. Can you imagine us setting off two such bombs now? How about five of them? Fifteen? Fifty? What do we imagine would be on the list of fifty targets for those fifty American nuclear blasts, each ten times the size of Hiroshima?

Our current arsenal of nukes is about 5,000 weapons. Of those, between 2,000 and 2,500 are deployed and ready to use—about the same number as Russia has ready. Thanks to the New START treaty negotiated in President Obama’s first year in office, that number is slated to eventually go down to 1,500 in both countries. But to get the Senate to agree to the deal with Russia reducing our total number of ready-to-launch nukes, President Obama also agreed to a huge new increase in the size of America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. Fewer weapons, but more money. A lot more. To secure the two-thirds vote necessary in the Senate to ratify the treaty, the initial Obama administration plan was to commit an extra $185 billion over ten years to our nukes—a nearly 10 percent annual increase. This was in 2009 and 2010, at a time when our economy was cratering and Republicans were insisting that the rest of the budget be slashed. “This might be,” noted one nuclear expert, “what’s necessary to buy the votes for ratification.”

Actually, it wasn’t enough. Republicans in the Senate thought this treaty-ratification fight was a good chance to monetize the nuclear-bomb infrastructure going forward. They evinced furrow-browed concern that the Obamanauts were not serious and might allow the whole reinvestment in nukes idea to “peter out.” Six months later, the Obama folks came back with more goodies. They added another whopping 10 percent to the next annual budget request, reiterated their promise to keep nuclear subs continuously patrolling both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and to stand ready—in a phrase that seemed to have migrated from the previous administration—to “surge additional submarines in a crisis.” They agreed to spend whatever it took to keep the ICBMs and the B-52s ready to fly for another full generation.

Settle in, Missileers, it’s gonna be at least another few decades.

The Obama administration said it was even ready to fund a new remote-controlled long-range nuclear bomber. How did eighty to one hundred nuclear-armed drones sound? Nuclear-armed flying robots. On remote control. What could possibly go wrong? “The most robust, sustained commitment to modernizing our nuclear deterrent since the end of the Cold War” was what the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration called Obama’s treaty-ratification goodie bag. “My predecessor put it best, saying he ‘would have killed’ for budgets like this.”

A couple of months after the Grand Bargain that bought the START treaty ratification, in 2011 a team of Air Force generals was back on Capitol Hill to share with a handful of senators the wonderful strides they had made in the three years since all that bad press that surrounded the six lost nukes; they were happy to explain just exactly what America was getting for the extra $650 million Congress had appropriated to shore up our nuclear program in the wake of Minot-to-Barksdale. For instance, there were the new posts manned by the generals testifying that day. (“The positions Lt. Gen. Kowalski, Maj. Gen. Chambers, and Brig. Gen. Harencak now hold were all established as a result of that mistake,” the subcommittee chairman noted by way of introduction.) The generals assured the congressional oversight committee that the Air Force’s relatively new oversight bureau, the Nuclear Weapons Center, was being spectacularly collaborative. The Pentagon had even invented a new someone with whom the Nuclear Weapons Center could exercise teamwork. “One of our most vital collaborations is with the newly created office of the Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Strategic Systems. The PEO … has assumed the responsibility for the development and acquisition of future systems and for modernization efforts while [the Nuclear Weapons Center] focuses on day-to-day operations and sustainment.” The Nuclear Weapons Center commander assured Congress that they were also being more proactive and forward-looking! They’d find problems before they hit the crisis stage; they’d train their personnel properly and give them working equipment and tools. (Let’s hope somebody thought of safety leashes for the socket wrenches.) They’d already merged databases so we’d no longer accidentally ship nuclear parts to warehouses in Taiwan or less-friendly countries. Oh, and they were determined to fix that problem with the sophisticated and complex Mk21 fuzes. They’d work that out.

Sadly, only two senators showed up for the hearing: the subcommittee’s chairman and its ranking member. And even those guys didn’t feel that we had too many nuclear doodads to keep track of. This was not what was keeping them up at night. In fact, Republican senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was mostly worried that the new nuclear arms reduction treaty was like some bureaucratic seductress beckoning us toward dangerous cuts in our nuclear forces. For the senator’s money, the president seemed awfully eager to actually comply with this new treaty.

Sessions wanted the generals to know he was going to make sure their new positions were safe and sound, that he was going to see to it that there was plenty of arsenal to keep them all busy for a very long time. “Last month, along with forty of my colleagues,” Senator Sessions told the military men, “I sent a letter to the president regarding our desire to be consulted on any further reduction plans to the nuclear stockpile. The New START treaty was only signed a few weeks ago, yet the administration is moving forward in my opinion at a pace that justifies the phrase ‘reckless,’ pursuing more reductions at an expedited and potentially destabilizing pace.”

Yeah, slimming down the stockpile of our thousands of nuclear weapons, that would be reckless. That would be unsafe.