WASHINGTON — The U.S. military mistakenly shipped four nuclear-missile detonators to Taiwan in 2006, then failed to detect the error for more than a year, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
It was the second time in recent months that Pentagon officials acknowledged losing track of parts of country's nuclear arsenal. Last September, a B-52 bomber was mistakenly loaded with nuclear-armed missiles and flown across the United States to a military base in Louisiana. At that time, Pentagon leaders called the misplaced arsenal an isolated incident.
The fuses mistakenly sent to Taiwan had been shipped in March 2005 from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to the Defense Logistics Agency warehouse at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
Pentagon officials said they didn't know how the detonators had been sent when Taiwan had ordered helicopter batteries or who was responsible. Michael Wynne, the secretary of the Air Force, said the cone-shaped fuses didn't resemble the power batteries that Taiwan had requested.
In addition there's a question of why they weren't reported missing earlier. The military discovered the error last week only when Taiwan authorities alerted it to the error. Military officials said that the fuses, recovered in the last few days, apparently hadn't been tampered with.
Wynne said that the misdirected detonators, used to ignite the trigger of a Mark-12 nuclear weapon, didn't pose a security threat. The triggers couldn't be used to detonate other weapons, officials said.
"This could not be construed as being nuclear material. It is a component for the fuse in the nose cone for a nuclear system," Wynne said
That the Pentagon discovered the error only last week raised new questions about the security of its nuclear arsenal. It may make it harder for the U.S. to argue to Pakistan, Russia, North Korea and other nations that they can't be trusted to secure their nuclear arsenals properly, said Victoria Samson, a research associate at the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information.
"It's kind of difficult to criticize them when we have these issues," Samson said. The U.S. military has procedures to secure its nuclear-weapons arsenal, but "they are just not being followed."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered an investigation of the Taiwan shipment and how the U.S. secures its nuclear arsenal, which will be headed by Adm. Kirkland Donald, the director of Navy Nuclear Propulsion.
"We'll do a thorough investigation, and those who are responsible will be held accountable. The secretary is quite forceful on this," Ryan Henry, the undersecretary of defense policy, said Tuesday during a news conference.
But now there are new questions about whether other parts of U.S. nuclear weapons are missing.
Wynne said the military conducted quarterly checks of its nuclear arsenal, but he couldn't explain how it didn't notice the missing fuses in as many as eight checks. That will be part of the investigation, he said.
"What else have we shipped out?" asked Samson of the Center for Defense Information.
Henry said the military notified China and key members of Congress about the missing arsenal. Beijing considers the independently governed island of Taiwan as part of China, making all U.S. decisions to sell arms to Taiwan controversial.