A report released this month by the Pentagon has revealed the truth behind the B-52 bomber—loaded with six live nuclear warheads—flying over the US, a mistake that could have had catastrophic consequences. Their explanation: a 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of printed paper used to differentiate between nuclear and conventional missiles. Really, it can't get any more absurd than this:
On August 31, 2007 an Air Force crew accidentally loaded six live nuclear warheads into a B-52 Stratofortress—stationed in the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota—believing they were conventional cruise missiles. The weapons were missing, without anyone noticing it, for 36 hours until the B-52 landed in Louisiana.
According to the Pentagon, this happened because the nuclear weapons were stored right next to conventional ones, with just an "8.5 x 11-inch sheet of printed paper to differentiate between the two types." I guess the paper was ignored by the ground crew. I also guess that the paper said something like "Maybe this is bad. Really. No touchy! Noooo touchy!" instead of "NUCLEAR WARHEAD INSIDE. DON'T TOUCH UNLESS INSTRUCTED BY THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF, YOU MORON" because, otherwise, I just can't understand their mistake.
The report goes on saying that "part" of the problem is that nobody really has absolute control of the nuclear weapons in the US arsenal after the demise of Strategic Air Command. After the fall of the Soviet Union, SAC was split in 1992 into three different commands: the Air Force Space Command (which grabbed ICBM control,) the Air Combat Command (in charge of the bombers themselves) and the Air Mobility Command, which "provides airlift, special missions, aerial refueling, and aeromedical evacuation for U.S. troops." Furthermore, the Air Force nuclear capability is also under the control of the USSTRATCOM, along with the Navy's submarine nuclear ballistic missiles.
The report, however, then says that this "near disaster" was a "human error" because there are tight rules in place that weren't followed. Col. West Anderson, second in charge of the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, added that they "handle weapons safely and ensure the highest possible standards of individual reliability and professional competence." I guess that means that the crew at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota are a bunch of incompetent monkeys, but his guys are A-OK. However, it all seems that they are just glad that nothing bad happened, so they can get away saving their asses.
Despite this "human error" excuse, their explanation leaves me with the impression that nobody has a real, definitive grasp of where every nuke is except probably Matthew Broderick and the WOPR. Their conclusion doesn't help either: the Air Force treats nukes the same as disarmed missiles when verifying armament, and there's "no written directive that specifically described the required identifying means" to make the distinction before loading the weapons into the bombers.
In other words: there are rules which are not followed, but they need more rules in writing. Perhaps they just need to stop playing Warhawk in their PlayStation 3 and start printing clearer warning signs. [Military.com, Wikipedia]