WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States mistakenly sent Taiwan four fuses used to trigger nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles in late 2006 and only discovered the error last week, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Nose cone assemblies containing the fuses were recovered Monday from Taiwan where they had been held in storage after being shipped there as helicopter batteries, senior Pentagon officials said.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered an investigation into the incident and a comprehensive review of the US inventory of all nuclear related components as well as of policies and procedures, the officials said.
"We'll do a thorough investigation, and those who are responsible will be held accountable. The secretary is quite forceful on this," said Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
President George W. Bush still had confidence in the air force leadership, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, adding that "he's glad that the result is that they got the parts back."
"But he'll be interested to hear what the results are from that investigation," she said.
It was the second major nuclear security breach uncovered in just over six months, following the mistaken transfer of nuclear armed cruise missiles from one US base to another aboard a B-52 bomber in September.
Experts said it raised questions what else may have gone astray.
"You would think anything dealing with components for nuclear warheads and for major ICBMs, that sort of thing would be set in stone," said Victoria Samson, an expert at the World Security Institute.
"And when it isn't it makes you wonder how much care is being taken in other parts of the Pentagon's work."
China was notified of the shipment, Henry said.
"Our policy on Taiwan arm sales have not changed. This specific incident was an error in process only and is not indicative of our policies, which remain unchanged," he said.
The fuses are housed in nose cones that are fitted to the warhead of a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. They are used to ignite the trigger of a Mark-12 nuclear weapon, officials said.
"It is the electrical firing mechanism that allows the rest of the system to detonate," said Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.
Wynne said the 22-inch long needle nose component does not look like a helicopter battery.
The sequence of errors began in March 2005 when the fuses were shipped as surplus articles from F.E. Warren Air Base in Wyoming to Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
Even though they were classified items, Wynne said they apparently were put in an unclassified logistics facility at Hill Air Force Base.
The Defense Logistics Agency then picked them out of the warehouse in the fall of 2006 and shipped them to the Republic of China, Taiwan, Wynne said.
The Taiwanese informed the US side that they had not received the batteries they had ordered for their helicopters, but the Americans thought they were talking about different sorts of batteries.
"It wasn't until this past week that we became aware that they had something akin to a nose cone assembly, at which time elements in the field worked that for a couple of days to get resolution," Wynne said.
Gates did not learn of the situation until he arrived at work on Friday morning, he said. Bush was notified the same day.
Henry said the nose cone assembly and fuse were classified but the technology dated from the 1960s.
But he and the other officials said that an investigation led by Navy Admiral Kirkland Donald, the director of Navy nuclear propulsion, will determine if any secrets were compromised.
Hans Kristensen, an expert at the Federation of American Scientist, said that the fuses, even if dated, were "hugely important" nuclear weapons components.
"So for a country like China, that is trying to develop more capable systems, that would be very important material to get. And (for) any country that is even lower on the nuclear threshold scale, having not quite gotten there, would be potentially even more important," he said.
Wynne said the items were understood to have been placed in storage by the Taiwanese after they received them. When the Taiwanese realized what they had, "they notified the right authorities and started the recovery process."
"We have no indications from a sight inspection of the item that it has in any way been tampered with, but that will be part of the further investigation," Henry said.
"That's one of the reasons for bringing the intelligence services in, to be able to determine that."
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