Nuclear Missile Fuses Mistakenly Sent to Taiwan, U.S. Says

The United States accidentally shipped crates containing four nuclear missile fuses to Taiwan in fall 2006, possibly violating international law, the U.S. Defense Department said today (see GSN, Feb. 28). The mishap came to light in the wake of the 2007 incident in which nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were flown from an Air Force base in North Dakota to another base in Louisiana.

The error was not discovered until Taiwan notified Washington that it had received the electronic components -- used to initiate a Minuteman missile's firing system -- in place of the intended shipment of helicopter batteries, Reuters reported.

"The secretary of defense is taking this very seriously.  We are all taking this very seriously," Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told journalists at the Pentagon.  "Though this was not and could not be construed as nuclear material … I would tell you that we are very concerned about it."

U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates were informed of the incident on Friday after the United States had received the fuses from Taiwan.  Washington has sent details on the incident to China, which maintains that Taiwan is part of its territory, and Gates has requested a full investigation of the error, said Principle Deputy Defense Undersecretary Ryan Henry.

It remains to be determined exactly how the accidental shipment occurred.  The fuses are supposed to be inventoried every three months, but the four in question apparently ended up in an unclassified storage area, Reuters reported (Kristin Roberts, Reuters, March 25).

"There are multiple players; there are multiple parties involved," Henry said, according to the Washington Post.  "We'll do a thorough investigation, and those who are found responsible will be held accountable" (Debbi Wilgoren, Washington Post, March 25).

The Pentagon has also instructed the Navy and Air Force to review all of their holdings of nuclear materials and related technology, Reuters reported.  It is also looking into whether the shipment constituted a violation of international law or arms agreements.

"That's under analysis now," Henry said.  "If there was something that was amiss, it was clearly not intentional" (Roberts, Reuters, March 25).

For more than a year after Pentagon officials were first notified of the error, they did not understand that it involved nuclear equipment rather than batteries, the Post reported.

"It wasn't until this week that we became aware that [Taiwan] had something akin to a nose-cone assembly," Henry said.  "There were early communications, but we thought we were hearing one thing, and  in reality they were saying something different" (Wilgoren, Post, March 25).

March 25, 2008
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The United States accidentally shipped crates containing four nuclear missile fuses to Taiwan in fall 2006, possibly violating international law, the U.S. Defense Department said today (see GSN, Feb. 28). The mishap came to light in the wake of the 2007 incident in which nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were flown from an Air Force base in North Dakota to another base in Louisiana.

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