From International Herald Tribune:
U.S. mistakenly shipped ballistic missile parts to Taiwan
By Thom Shanker
Published: March 25, 2008
WASHINGTON: Instead of sending helicopter batteries, the United States shipped four electrical fuses for Minuteman nuclear missile warheads to Taiwan, a mistake that was discovered only last week - a year and a half after the shipment, Pentagon officials disclosed Tuesday.
Officials said the nose-cone fuses contained no nuclear material and were similar in function to the ones used for conventional munitions, though these were designed specifically to send an electrical signal to the trigger of the MK-12 nuclear warhead as it was approaching the ground.
Even so, the incident is another embarrassment for America's nuclear weapons establishment, in particular the air force, which previously disclosed that a B-52 bomber mistakenly carried six nuclear cruise missiles on a flight from North Dakota to Louisiana last year.
The U.S. government is one of the most relentless advocates of halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, their components and the ballistic missiles to carry them, and has made public cases against potential adversaries like North Korea and Iran. It has also criticized Russia for not sufficiently safeguarding its stockpile of weapons.
By losing control of the four missile nose-cone fuses that fit atop a nuclear warhead, the United States risks significant diplomatic criticism from China, which has complained about American weapons sales to Taiwan, an island that Beijing considers a renegade province.
"Though this will likely be chalked up to a bureaucratic snafu, the Chinese will view this through the prism of their own suspicions about U.S. intentions," said Robert Litwak, an expert on proliferation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were informed of the discovery Friday, and Gates immediately ordered an investigation. "The department has initiated a complete physical inventory of all of these devices," said Ryan Henry, principal under secretary of defense for policy.
He said Gates told the air force and navy secretaries "to conduct a comprehensive review of all policies, procedures as well as a physical site inventory of all nuclear and nuclear-associated material or equipment across their respective programs."
Meanwhile, officials said, the fuses have been returned to U.S. custody.
Admiral Kirkland Donald, the director of Navy Nuclear Propulsion, will lead an investigation into how the nose-cone fuses came to be sent to Taiwan.
Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said the four nose-cone assemblies were shipped in March 2005 from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming for storage at a Defense Logistics Agency warehouse at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
Then, in the autumn of 2006, the four fuses, stored in canisters, were shipped to Taiwan to fill an order for helicopter batteries. It remained unclear, Wynne said, at which of the two American bases the canisters were misidentified as batteries.
The nose cone fuses are just under two feet long, and the authorities in Taiwan have assured the Pentagon that the canisters have remained unopened and in storage the entire time Taiwan had them, officials said.
Even so, part of the investigation will include intelligence and technical analysis to determine whether the fuses were examined or otherwise tampered with.
Officials said the error came to light last week when Taiwanese officials alerted the United States.
Henry said the United States Government was assessing whether the incident violated any domestic laws or treaty obligations.
"If there was something that was amiss, it clearly was not intentional," he said. "The United States stands up to its treaty obligations. And we're dealing with this in the most straightforward manner we can."
Henry said the United States had spoken to the government of China and that "we will continue to have dialogue with them."
Officials could not explain how the absence of the fuses was not discovered during the standard inventory reviews carried out four times a year.