WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a full inventory of all nuclear weapons and related materials after the mistaken delivery of ballistic missile fuses to Taiwan, the Pentagon said Thursday.
Gates told officials with the Air Force, Navy and Defense Logistics Agency to assess inventory control procedures for the materials and to submit a report within 60 days.
Earlier this week, Gates directed Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald to take charge of a full investigation of the delivery mistake in which four cone-shaped electrical fuses used in intercontinental ballistic missile warheads were shipped to the Taiwanese instead of the helicopter batteries they had ordered.
It was the second nuclear-related mistake involving the military that has been revealed in recent months. In August an Air Force B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. At the time, the pilot and crew were unaware they had nuclear arms aboard.
The electrical fuses were delivered in fall 2006, but the military did not fully realize the gravity of the blunder until last week. The revelation sparked sharp protests from China and forced President Bush to acknowledge the error in a phone call Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
While the shipment did not contain nuclear materials, the error is particularly sensitive because China vehemently opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. U.S. officials were quick to say that the incident did not suggest any change in policies toward Taiwan arms sales.
But China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, in a statement posted on the agency's Web site, that China had sent a protest to Washington expressing "strong displeasure."
He said China demanded the U.S. investigate the matter and report back to China to "eliminate the negative effects and disastrous consequences created by this incident."
Despite quarterly checks of the inventory, defense officials said they never knew the fuses were gone. Only after months of discussions with Taiwan over the missing batteries did the Pentagon finally realize — late last week — the seriousness of what had happened.
During that time, according to a senior Taiwan defense official, the U.S. initially asked Taiwan to dispose of the missile fuses. U.S. officials said that early on it was thought the Taiwanese had simply received the wrong batteries.
Once the error was discovered, the military quickly recovered the four fuses, which are linked to the triggering mechanisms in Minuteman nuclear missile nose cones. But Gates has demanded sweeping reviews to discover how it happened and whether it indicates a broader problem in the security of the military's nuclear weapons and related materials.
In his memo released Thursday, Gates ordered a physical inventory of all nuclear related items. Donald, whose assessment is separate from the agencies' inventories, must provide Gates with an initial report by April 15.
They've got "a broader problem", alright.