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Missile parts shipped to Taiwan in summer 2006

Mar. 25, 2008 - 12:55PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 25, 2008 - 12:55PM  |  
Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne demonstrates the positioning of a nose cone assembly for Minuteman missiles during a press briefing inside the Pentagon March 25. The non-nuclear assemblies were mistakenly sent to Taiwan in 2006.
Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne demonstrates the positioning of a nose cone assembly for Minuteman missiles during a press briefing inside the Pentagon March 25. The non-nuclear assemblies were mistakenly sent to Taiwan in 2006. (Defense Department)
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The Air Force mistakenly shipped classified ballistic missile components to Taiwan in August 2006, but didn't discover it until last Wednesday.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne said at a press conference Tuesday the Air Force sent Taiwan four fuses designed to trigger nuclear and non-nuclear Minuteman III ballistic missiles instead of batteries for utility helicopters the U.S. originally planned to send.

Related reading:

U.S. first told Taiwan to dispose of missile parts itself, official says

The mistake occurred a year before airmen from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., accidentally ferried and lost track of six nuclear warheads flown on a B-52 Stratofortress to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., prompting criticism of the Air Force's ability to secure its strategic weapon stockpile.

Airman shipped the four fuses encased in Minuteman III nose cones back in March 2005 from F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., to the Defense Logistics Agency warehouse at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, since F.E. Warren was overstocked, Wynne said.

But instead of securing the fuses in classified storage areas, Principle Deputy Undersecretary for Defense Ryan Henry said the airman stored the fuses at an unclassified site. He also said during the press conference that he could only be speculative on this part at this point.

More than a year later, airman at Hill took the fuses out of storage and shipped them to Taiwan where government officials immediately reported the wrong shipment to U.S. officials; however, Wynne said it wasn't until Wednesday that military leaders realized the gravity of the mistake.

The President and Secretary of Defense were both briefed about the shipment and airman immediately rushed to return the fuses to U.S. control transporting them to a nearby U.S. base.

"I cannot emphasize forcefully enough how strong the secretary feels about this matter and how disconcerting it is to him," Henry said.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates launched an investigation Wednesday headed by Admiral Kirkland Donald, director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, into who was responsible for the mistake and what caused it. In an">official memo, Gates specified he wanted an initial assessment by April 15 and a final report within the next 60 days.

The missing fuses should have been accounted for during quarterly inventories of the stockpiles at Hill Air Force Base, Wynne said, which will be investigated by Donald's team.

Taiwan has a cruise missile program that started to take shape over the past few years, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. A cruise missile capable of striking Shanghai or Hong Kong was successfully test fired in March 2007.

The Taiwanese military tried to develop a ballistic missile in the 1970s with the help of the Israelis, but those plans were scrapped by 1981. Taiwan continues to try to design a space launch vehicle to deploy satellites, which could quickly be redesigned to serve as a ballistic missile, but it has yet to demonstrate the capability, Kristensen said.

Wynne said U.S. officials are looking into whether any treaties were violated by the mistaken shipment, but the transport of helicopter batteries was not illegal.

A request for comment to the Chinese Embassy was not returned by press time.

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