Command Override: Part Two
Did Chinese Military Hackers Take Over A Nuclear-Armed B-52?
By William Thomas / willthomasonline.net
September 19, 2007
When it comes to dialing up a bomber to drop nuclear weapons on another country, "It's kind of like hiring a hit man," Hank explained. You meet him in the parking lot with the assignment, a weapon, and cash. Later, you confirm that you haven't changed your mind. Then the mission proceeds, and either the target or the hit man is taken out.
|Loading a live nuclear missile on a B-52 not only takes a lot of careful attention on the ground, it also takes a lot of high-level clearance in cyberspace. So what went wrong? Credit: Air Combat Command. (www.acc.af.mil)|
In the case of the mission out of Minot, the First Phase began with an initiation order authorizing weapons release to arm a B-52 specially flown in for this operation. Proper codes and paperwork provided the Pilot in Command with an initial heading to fly, and initial way-points or nav-points to punch into the plane's GPS. No destination was provided. The pilots were just supposed to get in and drive.
Once the B-52 was airborne, it flew into an electronic black hole. No electromagnetic emissions came from the bomber. There were no radio calls to home base asking, "Are you guys sure you really want to do this?" Even more startling, no coded IFF squawks identified the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker) as friendly to prowling post-9/11 fighters. And no transponder beeps identified the airplane and its mission.
This is not the normal procedure for transporting weapons, or flying a B-52 through heavily-trafficked air corridors over the Continental United States. Every aircraft flying at high altitudes over CONUS, (or through Controlled Airspace around airports at lower attitudes) must transmit their identity on an assigned transponder frequency.
Commercial planes squawk in their own dialect. "When you're talking a government vehicle, like a C-130 [military transport], that's another level up," Hank noted. "It's a different kind of squawk. ATC knows how to treat that kind of traffic differently. A B-52 is another level up. Controllers don't see that every day. A C-5 [flying down from Colorado to dust a hurricane, for example] -- they really don't see that every day."
The transponder code of the B-52 out of Minot would have prioritized it to civilian Air Traffic Control, and they would have cleared a corridor for its exclusive track -- much like a presidential motorcade.
If this Bad Boy had been transferring six advanced nuclear cruise missiles to Barksdale, as official spin insisted, its transponder would have squawked: "Hey, guess what? We've got nukes onboard! Make sure no one runs into us. And if this signal stops scramble recovery people wearing proper attire."
But this did not happen.
"The Situation Room in the White House was not stood up, but they still have people there," Hank continued. "One of their jobs is to track nuclear weapons. Somebody in that head shed should have seen a transponder code matched up with nuclear weapons loaded onto that aircraft. That should have been something that went up on the board. They would have known that a B-52 was getting a full loadout, and that all procedures had been followed.
And someone else would have said, 'Mmm, six nukes. We'll keep an eye on it.'" And given an order for radar operators to push a button to highlight that particular blip.
Instead, the blacked-out BUFF flew on.
High in the stratosphere, where the nitrous oxide exhaust from eight fuel-hungry turbines attacked this planet's shredding ozone layer, boosting global warming another notch toward a catastrophic methane meltdown, wings never designed to carry heavy ordnance flexed up and down like a bird in flight. The crew must have considered the long roster of crashed Stratofortress with "broken arrows" onboard. Not for a second could they forget that the six live nuclear weapons strapped to their wings were as close to detonation as the fail-safe switch under the Plane Commander's gloves.
|A B-52 flies over Barksdale AFB. On August 30, a nuclear-armed B-52 was reportedly headed for a refueling rendezvous with a long-distance tanker when it was diverted to Barksdale. The 21,802-acre facility is the Pentagon's "greenest" base, having won the Tree City USA Award for eight straight years and the state's Pollution Prevention Recognition Award. Barksdale is also the base that launches the Pentagon's bombing raids on targets around the world.|
An hour or two out of Minot, a bell chimed in the cockpit and a secure printer spat out a coded paper message. Even if they betrayed no emotion, the pilots must have felt a chill. Because the mission's next critical Fail-Safe had been passed. "We've thought about it, and the mission is still a go," the message essentially read. If these new orders had not been received, or had been issued incorrectly, the plane would have immediately turned back to the nearest base capable of handling its special needs.
But their orders were in order. Positively authenticated by both pilots as coming from the NCA, the new message received onboard the bomber issued the radio frequencies, call signs and rendezvous coordinates for "hitting" one of three aerial refueling planes constantly orbiting over the Gulf of Mexico. Their new "Go Code" also identified their target region. After topping off their tanks, they were to take up a heading for another Gulf, half a world away.
Blind Man's Bluff
Wouldn't the base commander or the other officers involved in sending live nuclear weapons toward Iran have second thoughts about a strike that could trigger an even bigger political-military chain reaction?
Not necessarily, Hank explained. Military leaders usually favor intimidation in place of bloodshed. Everyone involved in the mission must have hoped that in this high-stakes brinksmanship, when Iranian sensors picked up the radioactive signature of an inbound American nuclear bomber strike, the mullahs in Teheran would burn their Korans and turn to Jesus.
On the other hand, the mullahs might panic and start pushing buttons of their own. Especially when the Israeli Air Force was notified of the strike, and launched "supporting" fighter-bombers of their own.
In any case, it was out of the hands of the base commander and his immediate superiors. Since any one of these key staff officers could conceivably be kidnapped or impersonated during a nuclear strike, none had the authority to issue a recall order.
Even if someone in the chain of command issued an RTB (Return To Base), SAC bomber crews en route to the final IP coordinates to commence their attack are trained to ignore all such entreaties. In fact, a frantic "Come home for lunch," or "Call your wife" command would confirm for the crew that something really was amiss, and they were at war.
In this way, a series of rote military assumptions can make an ash out of you and me.
What, Me Worry?
Meanwhile, George W. Bush, the man under whose digitally coded authority this strike was being carried out, remained completely unaware that six nuclear cruise missiles with his name on them were headed toward Iran.
| Ironically, Barksdale AFC is a critical hub in the Pentagon's CyberWarfare establishment. Somehow, on August 30, the system suffered a meltdown that could have ended in a mushroom cloud.|
Phase Three would have issued coded authorization to take out their assigned targets. One target confirmed by two highly placed, independent sources was a nuclear power plant hard against the mountains of Iran. "But the bomber would still have five missiles left. And it would not leave the area empty," Hank insisted. "If they go loaded for bear, they're not going to leave with a rabbit."
After all, he added, a pre-BDA [Bomb Damage Assessment] would have been done before launching the bomber "to determine how many it would take. And they needed six?"
Despite all the Hollywood hype, cruise missiles are notoriously inaccurate. But if the nuclear-tipped ACM had detonated over an Iranian power plant's nuclear pile? "Bad. Bad. Very bad," as Hank would say. Because the resulting electromagnetic pulses from such a synergistic chain reaction would have -- among other things -- fried every unhardened Chinese microchip aboard every American ship, plane and vehicle in the Persian Gulf.
"You don't have to sink the CAG, just turn it off," Hank said, referring to the formidable -- yet completely microchip-dependent -- Carrier Air Group steaming off the coast of Iran. "Once they realized that these ships were just bobbing around out there," the bad guys would have "launched 10,000 rowboats" from surrounding shorelines to go play pirates.
Was this why several Chinese Aegis destroyers were steaming in from the east about 250 nautical miles from the Straits of Hormuz? Was this why two or three Chinese submarines had been deployed to the area of the transiting destroyers the week before?
Or were the two Chinese anti-aircraft destroyers part of an elaborate fail-safe in case the demonstration glitched and the bomber could not be recalled? Even if their anti-aircraft missiles could not reach the distant plane (easily tracked through its rigged Chinese chips), specific signals sent from the ship could have turned the plane around. Or its fuel off.
What were the Chinese thinking?
Surely, Beijing must have reasoned, ordering a United State Air Force strategic bomber loaded out with six armed nuclear weapons to fly over the United States and then on towards Iran would conclusively demonstrate who was now in charge.
"This op would not have 'Made In China' stamped all over it," Hank pointed out. "Instead, American bombs, American bombers and American systems were used." No matter how the mission had proceeded, if Washington had been forced to tell the world, "It wasn't us. We lost control of our bomber carrying six atomic warheads" -- how would that have looked to a global audience already angry over America's misuse of its military might?
Whatever Beijing's intentions, Hank was not the only person in the US military to have his head rearranged by this latest Chinese demonstration. "They might have wanted to go all the way. Of they might have wanted to put pieces in play and see how far they could go," he surmised. "Maybe the Chinese started and stopped it."
Either way, the unauthorized Minot mission has bluntly shown the White House and the Pentagon: "If you start something, we can stop it. You no longer know how much control you have over your own weapons systems because we can play with them at will. No matter where you are, no matter what you're doing, if you're using our chips you are vulnerable. And you can't know if our Trojan chips are in your systems unless you tear apart every circuits in every surveillance, communications, weapons system, pipelines, telecom and power grid in your entire military and civilian inventory and look. And then dismantle every network they are connected to."
"And one more thing," Beijing inferred, "If you take offense and pop off a missile, remember, we might make it do a loop-de-loop and come right back down on its originating silo."
Hank and others in America's command hierarchy remain alarmed and puzzled -- which makes them even more uneasy.
"Maybe the Chinese got it right and they were just messin' with us," Hank mused. "Or they got it wrong and something every very bad almost happened. But why only one plane? Why stop there? It's a limited use of a system that is now exposed."
But what can we do about it?
Diversion to Barksdale
Phase Three of the mission would have sent coded target grid coordinates and time(s) of weapon(s) release, as well as updates on weather over the area, enemy defense status and friendly escorts. Those orders never came.
Instead, Phase Four was initiated. When the cockpit teleprinter spat out paper tape again, it read, in so many words: "Forget the whole thing. Abort the mission. Turn back." The only people capable of issuing a nuclear strike recall order would be the President, the Secretary of Defense, a specific designate of the SecDef authorized by special code. Or a Chinese military hacker.
As Hank notes, "The plane had to be diverted to a base that could handle nuclear weapons." That would be Barksdale. But live hot nukes would have tripped alarms on the tarmac when it touched down. Either they were nonfunctional on both ends [Minot and Barksdale] (which is scary beyond belief considering what we're talking about), or the Joint Chiefs or the NCA could have ordered the radiation sensors silenced to keep the mission -- and the hijacked mission -- under wraps. Or the Chinese could have turned them off. If the system is digital, Beijing probably controls it.
Bottom line: if the incoming bomber had crashed approach, no one responding would have known they were dealing with a "broken arrow."
Where Are those Nuclear Missiles Now?
Thought the missiles were never launched, they still remain in play. As Hank worried, "Six nukes are now forward deployed to the air force base that handles Middle East ops."
A former counter-terrorism expert with the CIA and the State Department shares his concern. Larry Johnson does not buy the official story that six nuclear weapons were "mistakenly" flown over the USA -- not after a retired B-52 pilot reminded him: "The only time you put such weapons on a plane is when they are on alert, or if the crew has been tasked to move the weapons to a specific site." Besides running nuclear war exercises like the Global Guardian drill it ran on the morning of 9/11, Barksdale AFB deploys "heavies" to the Middle East.
Like Hank, Johnson wants to know, "Why would we want to preposition nuclear weapons at a base conducting Middle East operations?" His pilot pal believes that an inside leaker tried to send up a bright red flag. Johnson asks, "Did someone at Barksdale try to indirectly warn the American people that the Bush Administration is staging nukes for Iran?" [www.antiwar.com]
But Cruise missiles -- which are essentially autonomous, unpiloted drones -- have special needs. Since six cruise missiles showing up at Barksdale were an oddity, can they be adequately stored and maintained there? The Gulf Coast is "a very different environment" than Nebraska, Hank emphasizes. How long is Barksdale going to hold onto them? In the hurricane season? Americans need a big "confirm" that these weapons have been sent back north to a better home.
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, www.willthomasonline.net.
For more information contact: