Facts Check Please. "National Interest" Gets It Wrong.
Copyright 2021 by Michael H. Maggelet
recent article in the "National Interest" website entitled
"Missing in Action: Six of America's Nuclear Weapons Are
Unaccounted For" (April 18, 2021) is rife with errors. Not surprisingly, the article has been copied and the disinformation spread on the web on various websites.
Let's take a look at some of the claims versus the facts. Many of the claims are partially extracted from the 1977 and 1980 DOD accident list, with some disinformation thrown in by the "Center for Defense Information" and others over the decades.
Claim- "February 13, 1950- The longest missing nuclear weapon hasn't been seen in 71 years, and it is unlikely it will be found anytime soon.
It was lost when the crew of a United States Air Force Convair B-36 bomber was conducting a mock nuclear strike and was en route from Eielson Air Force Base (AFB), Alaska to Carswell AFB, Texas, when it developed engine trouble. Not wanting to have a crash with a nuclear warhead, the crew was ordered to drop its 30-kiloton Mark 4 (Fat Man) bomb into the Pacific Ocean.
According to the "official" report, the bomb didn't contain the plutonium core necessary for a nuclear detonation, but it still contained a substantial amount of uranium."
In the case of the February 13, 1950 accident, the Mk 4 bomb was intentionally jettisoned due to an in-flight emergency, and set for an airburst. The aircraft did not have a nuclear capsule on board, and only a lead (Pb) training capsule was installed in the bomb. Only the bomb's high explosive content detonated (a nuclear detonation was not possible), and the depleted uranium content could not produce any nuclear detonation (and was vaporized in the HE detonation).
Claim- "March 10, 1956- Six years after losing the first bomb, two nuclear cores were lost when a B-47 bomber likely crashed in the Mediterranean Sea while en route from MacDill AFB, Florida to Ben Guerir Air Base, Morocco. The aircraft had successfully completed its first aerial refueling, but it failed to make contact with a tanker for a second refueling and was reported missing.
The exact weapon wasn't disclosed, but the B-47 typically carried the 3,400-kilogram Mark 15 nuclear bomb. No trace of the plane nor the cores has ever been found."
no nuclear bomb aboard the aircraft, only two capsules of nuclear
material stored in "birdcages". This information is rather
evident if one actually bothers
to read the official DOD narratives-
March 10, 1956 / B-47 / Mediterranean Sea
The aircraft was one of a flight of four scheduled for non-stop deployment from MacDill AFB to an overseas air base. Take-off from MacDill and first re-fueling were normal. The second refueling point was over the Mediterranean Sea. In preparation for this, the flight penetrated solid cloud formation to descend to the refueling level of 14,000 feet. Base of the clouds was 14,500 feet and visibility was poor. The aircraft, carrying two nuclear capsules in carrying cases, never made contact with the tanker.
An extensive search failed to locate any traces of the missing aircraft or crew. No weapons were aboard the aircraft, only two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases. A nuclear detonation was not possible.
- - -
Claim- "February 5, 1958- During a simulated combat mission near Savannah, Georgia, another Air Force B-47 bomber carrying a Mk 15 weapon collided with an F-86. After multiple attempts to land, the bomber crew was given the green light to jettison the bomb to reduce weight, and also to ensure it wouldn't explode during an emergency landing. The bomb, which was dropped over the Wassaw Sound near the mouth of the Savannah River, wasn't recovered."
Facts- In actuality, an F-86 collided with the B-47. The Mk 15 Mod 0 bomb aboard the B-47 did not contain a nuclear capsule, and a lead training capsule was stored in the cockpit (nor could it be installed into the bomb unless downloaded from the aircraft). The aircrew did not attempt to land with the bomb aboard, it was intentionally jettisoned before landing.
The bomb was jettisoned off Wassaw Sound and has not been recovered. It cannot explode in a nuclear manner since it does not contain a nuclear capsule for the primary.
- - -
Claim- "January 24, 1961- Somewhere near Goldsboro, North Carolina, a uranium core is likely buried in a field. It had been one of the cores for a pair of 24-megaton nuclear bombs that were on a B-52 that crashed shortly after takeoff. What is especially unsettling about this incident is that three of the four arming mechanisms on the bomb that was recovered had been activated.
The second bomb's tail was discovered 20 feet below ground in the muddy field, and when efforts to find the core failed to uncover it, the military did the next best thing. The United States Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400-foot circular easement over the buried components to restrict digging."
Facts- There is no "uranium core" buried in any field in North Carolina. What is missing was the secondary from bomb two, which contains uranium (detailed in the 1977 DOD "Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving US Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980").
The bomb yields were not 24 megatons, they were approximately 3.8 megatons each, and due to safety mechanisms (two electrical ready/safe switches in each weapon), they were not pre-armed nor armed, and they could not have produced a nuclear detonation under the circumstances.
- - -
Claim- December 5, 1965- "Somehow an A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft, loaded with a one-megaton thermonuclear weapon, managed to roll off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga and fell into the Pacific Ocean. The pilot, plane and bomb quickly sank in 16,000 feet of water and were never seen again.
it wasn't until 15 years later that the U.S. Navy even admitted the
accident had taken place, and only noted it happened 500 miles from
land. However, that wasn't true – as the carrier was about 80 miles
from Japan's Ryuki island chain. As a result of that accident, the
Japanese government now prohibits the United States from bringing
nuclear weapons into its territory."
Facts- The A-4 did roll off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga, incidentally after crewmen attempted to stop it with chocks. The accident was acknowledged in the 1977 DOD "Narrative Summaries of Nuclear Weapons Accidents". The locations of many overseas accidents were classified due to agreements with the host nation, and to prevent retrieval by hostile nations.
- - -
Claim- "Spring 1968- The final bomb to be lost and not recovered occurred sometime in the first half of 1968, and involved the loss of the U.S. Navy's nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion, which sank about 400 miles to the southwest of the Azores Islands. In addition to the tragic loss of the 99 crewmembers, the submarine was carrying a pair of nuclear-tipped weapons, which had yields of up to 250 kilotons.
While this should be as scary as suggested, the good news is that in the past 50 plus years, no other nuclear weapons have been lost – at least that we know of."
The USS Scorpion was carrying two Mk 45 ASTOR torpedoes with W34 Mod 3 nuclear warheads. While the yield remains classified, it certainly
was not 250 kilotons. There is no evidence that the sub was sunk by
any torpedo or hostile action, and the two nuclear armed torpedoes
remain inside the sub's hull.
The author ignores the loss of Soviet nuclear weapons on submarines in various accidents, not to mention the grounding of a nuclear armed Soviet sub in Swedish waters in 1981.
For more information on the facts surrounding US and Soviet nuclear weapon incidents and accidents, please purchase the books by Michael H. Maggelet and the late James Oskins.