Command Override: Part One
Why Did a Nuclear-Armed B-52 Take off from North Dakota and Head for Iran?

By William Thomas /
September 19, 2007

A nuclear-capable air-launched Cruise missile. Was it headed for Tehran? If so, who gave the order?
The story sounded like a sequel to Dr. Strangelove. Leaked by Military Affairs, the Pentagon's news service, to quell scuttlebutt racing through the ranks -- and perhaps warn the world -- a US Air Force B-52 strategic bomber "mistakenly" loaded with six nuclear cruise missiles took off from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota on August 30, 2007 and flew for more than three hours over at least five states, before landing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

The mistake was so egregious, the National Command Authority comprising President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were quickly informed. The SecDef has since been assured that nuclear weapons "were part of a routine transfer between the two bases -- at no time was the public in danger."

Both statements are false.

In fact, nuclear weapons like these are carefully crated for shipment between bases, and placed inside the bomb bays or cargo compartments of transporting aircraft. In stunning contrast, this reporter has learned from two independent and highly placed sources that the six Advanced Cruise Missiles dangling from the B-52's fatigued and flexible wings were fully armed and ready to fire -- except for a single fail/safe switch under the Command Pilot's control.

The quickly blacked-out episode has prompted an Air Force inquiry. Gates (whose official defense computer was hacked last June, necessitating the shutdown of the entire SecDef network) has ordered daily briefings on the Air Force inquiry. The Minot base commander, who might turn out to be the hero in this frightening affair, was relieved of his command.

Dr. Strangelove Visits Bourbon Street
As far as anyone knows, no US aircraft has ever been armed with a full wartime loadout of six nuclear weapons. "Nothing like this has ever been reported before and we have been assured for decades that it was impossible," declared Representative Markey, co-chair of the House Task Force on Nonproliferation. [AP Sept 5/07; Seattle Times Sept 5/07]

Hans Kristensen, an expert on US nuclear forces, says he knows of no other publicly acknowledged case of live nuclear weapons being flown on bombers since the late 1960s. []

Each of the six ACMs carried a "dialable," 150-kiloton W80-1 warhead -- for a combined total of 60-times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb -- over the unsuspecting residents of five states. Depending on the route flown, the six armed nuclear weapons wafted for three-and-a-half hours over North Dakota and either South Dakota or Minnesota, Nebraska or Missouri, Oklahoma or Arkansas, and Louisiana.

It's no secret that Dick Cheney and his presidential surrogate intend to bomb Iran into the Kingdom to Come as the BBC News noted on August 29. But New Orleans?

Tough Love
The "mistake" was supposedly discovered when the B-52 landed at Barskdale, where the plane should have been secured by an armed security detail. Instead, it simply parked on the flight line, where ground crew noticed the words "nuclear armed" stenciled on the sides of the missiles. []

Three officers confirmed the warheads were, in Bush's argot, "nucular."

The mission could have ended in a "broken arrow" nuclear calamity if the bomber had crashed, or inadvertently dropped its ordnance. Munitions, and even entire engines, occasionally drop from underwing pylons in flight.

A few examples:

  • In May 1979, the No. 1 turbine fell off an American Airlines DC-10 after taking off from Chicago's O'Hare airport, killing two people on the ground and all 271 people onboard. [Chicago Tribune, May 26-30/79; National Transportation Safety Board Aircraft Accident Report NSTB-AAR-79-17]

  • A B-36 ferrying a nuclear weapon from Biggs Air Force Base, Texas to Kirtland accidentally drops a bomb in the New Mexico desert. []

  • A fighter pilot accidentally dropped a BDU-33 dummy bomb into a house, narrowly missing a family of three. []

  • A 500-pound bomb fell from an FA-18 plane during a routine training exercise and exploded on the edge of a US base 100 miles north of Sarajevo. [AP, July 17, 2002]

  • A National Guard F-16 fighter jet on a nighttime training mission strafed an elementary school in New Jersey with 25 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition. [AP, Nov 4, 2004]

  • Another US Air Force practice bomb was accidentally dropped on the Yorkshire countryside in England. [BBC, Jan 12, 2004]

  • Electromagnetic interference from military transmitters may have caused an F-16 jet to accidentally drop a 500-pound bomb on rural West Georgia. [Montreal Gazette, May 12, 1989]

    Barksdale AFB is no stranger to nuclear accidents. On July 6, 1959, a C-124 "Flying Boxcar" crashed on takeoff, completely destroying the aircraft and the nuclear weapon it was carrying. []

    A crash, mid-air explosion or structural breakup -- not uncommon occurrences with heavily-laden B-52s -- could have ignited the high explosives used to implode the warheads. The ultimate dirty bomber's fantasy could have seen plutonium -- the deadliest substance ever conjured by humans -- raining down over what would become a statewide "national sacrifice zone," off-limits to all lifeforms for more than 4 billion years.

    Nuclear Strike Protocols
    The six armed nuclear missiles were lifted into the air by a B-52 Stratofortress flying out of Minot AFB. Credit: US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jocelyn Rich.
    The Air Combat Command has ordered a command-wide stand down for September 14, 2007 to "review procedures." Though they actually responded flawlessly to apparently authentic orders, the highly trained specialists who carried out the nuclear loadout have been temporarily "decertified" from handling nukes.

    Representative Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the mishandling of arms capable of destroying cities "deeply disturbing. There is no more serious issue than the security and proper handling of nuclear weapons." [AP September 5, 2007]

    The crewdogs who flew their assigned mission without mishap have been ordered not to mention that all pilots are required to perform a "walk around" inspection of their airplanes and calculate elaborate "weight-and-balance" graphs before attempting to aviate. Failure to notice or be informed of the much heavier nuclear casings on the missiles they were carrying would have jeopardized flight safety.

    According to a well-informed and extremely thorough US military source I call "Hank" (with whom I have broken major stories over the past 15 years), someone "must have adjusted the bomber's balance. It had to have been done."

    In addition to knowing what is externally attached to their airplane, the amount of paperwork, signatures, and discrete passwords involved in releasing a nuclear weapon from its storage bunker and loading it onto an airframe are more formidable than flak.

    And there were six of them.

    The coded message to upload and launch the B-52 from Minot with six live nuclear weapons carried the signature of the "football" containing the day's nuclear launch codes that is carried close to the president at all times by a specially detailed aide. After checking and counter-checking their coded orders, as few as a dozen people in uniform were actually involved in the subsequent secret nuclear mission.

    According to Hank, at least three high-ranking officers were escorted into Minot AFB's nuclear arms bunker after passing through multiple doors secured by pass codes, whose complete sequences were supplied each officer, who only knew part of each code. One hiccup, a fumbled code sequence, or "the wrong wrench" would have cancelled the loadout instantly.

    Because the base had stood down for Labor Day, the timing was ideal for security. In his standing orders for August 30, 2007, 5th Bomb Wing Commander Colonel Bruce Emig encouraged his troops to "Enjoy a safe Labor Day weekend.

    "Warbirds, It's hard to believe that Labor Day weekend is already here!" the colonel wrote. "Though cooler temperatures are right around the corner, the weather forecasters tell me that we should have a warm, summer-like weekend. Since Air Combat Command and Air Force Space Command have declared Friday a Family Day, many of you should be able to enjoy a nice, 4-day break as we transition from summer to fall. I wish all of you a relaxing and enjoyable time off, and urge you all once again to please keep safety in mind in all you do!" []

    Under a bomber's nuclear umbrella in a discrete corner of the sprawling airbase, air, ground and ordnance crews did not converse with each other. Or anyone else. Everyone involved knew better than to ask questions that could abruptly end their careers by inadvertently tipping people who did not need to know.

    Within hours, an airplane with a wingspan longer than the Wright Brothers' first flight was safely loaded with avgas, sandwiches, and six nuclear weapons. Uploaded to the bomber using an accordion cradle on each missile trolley, each Advanced Cruise Missile was fueled once it was secured to a hard point under the aircraft's wings. Because the ACMs were not inside a bomb bay, where they could be armed in flight, each underslung missile had to be fully armed before takeoff. "Wing walker" is not a B-52 job description.

    The plates connecting the firing circuits of each warhead to the cockpit were then activated, and the safeties were pulled from each clearly marked "nuclear weapon" -- rendering it "live." For the Explosive Ordnance Disposal detail who performed the loadout, there could be no doubt they were activating six nuclear weapons.

    Alarms on the flight line should have sounded as soon as they sniffed hot ions leaking from the pulled pile rods in six slowly fissioning warheads. But the alarms remain silenced. That order, Hank insisted, could only have come under the properly coded signature of the National Command Authority -- Commander-in-Chief G.W. Bush or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

    The ensuing takeoff was an event branded on the central nervous system of every creature in auditory range as eight jet engines at maximum takeoff thrust levitated six missiles, up to 46,000 gallons of fuel, and an airplane the length of a 150-foot ship into a blue yonder that had just become much wilder. Everyone within miles knew that a B-52 had come into Minot and taken off again. But only God and the devil knew where it was going.

    Who Dunnit?
    A ground grew at Minot AFB secures an ACM cruise missile to the pylon beneath the wing of a B-52. Credit: US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jocelyn Rich.
    In the silence left by this momentous departure, if there were questions, nobody voiced them. Perhaps there were a few quietly delivered high-fives instead. Despite the high stress that runs counter to every human instinct, everyone involved had carried out their assigned duties with complete attention to the details required to launch a half-dozen live nuclear weapons "safely." The professionally conducted operation was carried off in complete secrecy, without a hitch, only after the loadout and launch order had been digitally confirmed as coming from the NCA.

    There was only one problem regarding the originators of those orders, Hank emailed me: "IT WAS NOT US."

    Let us quickly review. My earlier exclusive on my former website,, disclosed how in October 2006, North Korea's leaders asked China to take out Japan's shiny new recon satellite before it could be tasked by American officers to monitor Pyongyang's first atomic test. Blowing up someone's satellite is an act of war. But overriding its "Made In China" microchips with a remote command from the ground could never be proven.

    This first Chinese demo got the Pentagon's attention. After all, their stated goal of "Full Spectrum Dominance" over Earth's land, seas, airspace and electromagnetic spectrum depends on America's successful weaponization of space. But as the Joint Chiefs are only now discovering, many of the supposedly secure chips in America's civilian infrastructure -- as well as all military communications, surveillance and weapons systems -- have been "Wal-Marted" by US corporations to low-bid Chinese suppliers -- who rigged them for failure or takeover by "command override" in the event of war. [See: "Faulty Microchips Threaten US Attack on Iran" at]

    Opening the Gates
    Last June, in what came to be called "the most successful cyber attack ever mounted on the US defense department," Chinese military hacked into a Pentagon computer network serving the defense secretary's personal office.

    Like their American counterparts, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) regularly probes US military networks. But American officials said these latest cyber attack caused grave concern when China demonstrated it "could disrupt US defenses systems at critical times."

    "The PLA has demonstrated the ability to conduct attacks that disable our system... and the ability in a conflict situation to re-enter and disrupt on a very large scale," revealed a former official, adding that the PLA has also penetrated the networks of US arms corporations and war-launching think-tanks. [Financial Times, September 3, 2007]

    British and German newspapers cited intelligence saying that government and military networks in Germany, the United States and Britain had been broken into by Chinese army hackers this summer.

    According to the Associated Press: "China's military has openly discussed using cyber attacks as a means of harrying or defeating a more powerful conventional military. In a 1999 paper on unconventional strategies titled 'Unlimited Warfare,' two top Chinese military figures wrote that a hacker could have more power than a nuclear bomb."

    Speaking as a soldier, Hank commented, "The June hack showed an enormous hole in our ability to protect and communicate our information."

    Will Thomas is an award-winning, veteran investigative reporter, who specializes in environmental and military issues. Thomas is based in Canada where he hosts his widely read Web site,

    Continued: Command Override: Part Two -- "How Chinese Military Hackers Took Over A Nuclear-Armed B-52."

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